The Roost

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”

Beginning Upstream

Perhaps you too wait for a day or three before taking up an anticipated book. Just so for me with Upstream, Mary Oliver’s recently released volume of selected essays. I didn’t hurry for two reasons: first, I’d read a number, most, of the essays before when they appeared in earlier volumes; I’d even read one in first light before it appeared in the journal I edited then. Second, and more pertinently, I wanted those few days before opening the door of the book’s cover and stepping first into one, then another, of its rooms. I knew that, even as many would not be wholly new, taking up residence would feel new – we, the essays and I, would differ, sometimes greatly, from what we were at our last meetings.

Fairhaven Bay - upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Fairhaven Bay – upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Morning coffee’s the time for my day’s first reading before turning to work, and so, facing east, I began Upstream, and soon, I heard familiar resonance – here, even as Emerson is Oliver’s favorite Concordian, was the not-so-distant presence of Henry Thoreau, cloaked in his famous coat metaphor. Walden readers are likely to recall its appearance at the end of the book’s second paragraph, where Thoreau has been speculating about his potential readership:

Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

And here is Oliver in a paragraph late in the clear waters of her book’s title essay, which is, among other things, about becoming, or, to use one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, “realizing” oneself:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Both writers would have us try on lives, but wear, finally, only the one that doesn’t “stretch the seams” or burden us with heavy responsibilities chosen by others. It takes “time to reject them,” for Henry Thoreau the two-plus years at Walden Pond, where, even as he cast off other coats, he was busy already with the one that he would offer in 1854.

As I read this paragraph, associations burst like popcorn in a popper, when suddenly the oil reaches temperature, and where there were only little seeds there are now white flowers of corn spilling up and out, so many, an overflow – the kneeling to earth, the attention on eternity, the nail, the house, the water, the flowers…

Oliver’s essay ends soon after with a single sentence paragraph: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Simone Weil wrote, “absolute attention is prayer.”

And Thoreau, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Downstream - not Oliver's coast, but mine.

Downstream – not Oliver’s coast, but mine.

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Ripple – Pencil Addendum

Perhaps you too love it when a story ripples on, when the splash of its initial landing brings on a little backwash from or crossings with other stories and their wavelets. Just so with our recently posted piece from Richard Higgins about NYC’s attempted heist of Concord’s and the Thoreau family’s pencil past. Here, in short, is a photo Higgins discovered and its caption, which offers ID. At the end we have a tag-verse. Perhaps there are still more pencil-places to be heard from.


An old mill in Rex Village, N.C., turned into the fictional Stanleyville, “Pencil Capital of the World,” in the Disney film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” (Readers: please do not forward to The New York Times.)





       “Playing footsie with pencil

         history  is something with which

        the people of Concord  will not


Richard Higgins – after Winston Churchill

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New York Erases Concord’s Preeminent Pencil Past

by Richard Higgins

Few will forget that last year at this time New York told us that Henry Thoreau was really a cheerless curmudgeon and hypocritical scold with the heart of Ted Kaczynski and the writing ability of Bronson Alcott. Many were astonished that the Thoreau Society had somehow missed this for this 75 years.

Now from New York comes another October surprise, this one from the Times, not the New Yorker. Also overlooked by Thoreau and Concord partisans, it recently announced, is the fact that the pencil capital of 19th- century America was–drum roll, please –New York City! Who (beside Kathryn Schulz) woulda thunk it?

I will not play fast and loose with the facts (unlike some writers), so I will corroborate. On Tuesday, October 11, 2016, a metro column in The New York Times began:

New York Today: Our Past in Pencils

“With school back in full swing (except for all the days off recently), let’s sharpen our knowledge of New York history.

Today’s lesson: How our city was once the capital of pencil manufacturing in the United States.

It further stated that New York in 1861 had, and I quote, “one of the country’s first lead-pencil factories.”

Now, are we who are in the know going to savage the author of this ridiculous claim with vicious personal attacks? Of course not. Concord people are decent and forgiving. Ms. Levine is probably a sincere and lovely person in addition to being a criminally inept reporter.

As everyone else knows, Concord had sophisticated and productive pencil factories while raw sewage still flowed on New York streets and no one dared venture into the raving wilderness above Wall Street.

Here, Ms. Levine, not to put too fine a point on it, are the facts:

The first wood pencils in the New World were made in Concord in 1812 when William Munroe invented a machine to cut and groove wood slats and filled them with a graphite paste. Fifty-nine (59) years later, in 1861, Eberhard Faber built what the Times calls the first “large-scale” pencil-making factory, in New York. Munroe’s shop was primitive by comparison. However he produced 175,000 pencils in 1814, only two years after starting, and five million pencils in 1835 alone. Sounds large-scale to me.

Munroe Pencils photo: Wikipedia

Munroe Pencils
photo: Wikipedia

Munroe was soon joined by a cluster of prominent pencil makers in Concord and surrounding towns, including Ebenezer Wood (Acton), Joseph Dixon (Salem), Benjamin Ball (Harvard) and, most famously, in 1821, the father of the humorless misanthrope, and then the insufferable sourpuss himself. It was partly because of Henry Thoreau’s involvement that Concord led the pencil industry in the United States into the 1840s. At that time, Thoreau pencils were among the most sought after in the country.

Finest Pencils photo: Wikipedia

Finest Pencils
photo: Wikipedia

Concord pencils apparently were even admired in New York. In a family history, Munroe’s son wrote that some of his father’s less principled competitors illegally slapped Munroe labels on their stock. “One merchant in New York”—that putative pinnacle of all things pencil—“sold German-made pencils with ‘W. Munroe’ on them as illegal knock-offs.” No names mentioned, but just noting that Eberhard was from Bavaria.

The question then is: What makes one pencil-producing city the pencil capital of a nation? The quantity of cheap pencils turned out? Probably not. Would not innovation and quality be better criteria?

If so, honors must go to 01742. Here’s why:

Concord pencil makers early on mixed graphite with wax, spermaceti and other substances. All worked but had drawbacks. The French were the only ones who knew the right recipe. Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented the modern pencil lead in 1795 by mixing graphite with clay—but he kept the formula a strict secret. Henry Thoreau decided to find the perfect graphite mix on his own. After researching it at the Harvard Library in 1840, he hit upon the idea of using clay—rediscovering what the Frenchman had figured out 45 years earlier. The result was a pencil lead that was harder and darker than any his family had made.

Thoreau also designed a machine to grind graphite better and another one to drill a hole lengthwise through the wood slats so the lead could be slid inside. The only reason the Thoreau family got out of the business was that the right recipe soon became common knowledge, resulting in stiff competition. The Thoreau’s wisely abandoned the pencil business in 1853 for a more profitable one: selling powdered graphite (“plumbago”) for use in electrotyping.

Having now settled this matter, to be fair I should point out that when I gently informed Ms. Levine by email of her error, she was the soul of grace. She apologized and promised a correction. I thanked her and said having at least one of these October misrepresentations corrected would set many local minds at ease. Her reply was not encouraging. She was off to her next story. New York workers, she said, have found the exact spot where the original Concord grape grew in Central Park.

Writer and editor Richard Higgins lives in Concord. University of California Press will publish his Thoreau and the Language of Trees in March 2017. He may be reached at


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One Honest Walk

By Corinne H. Smith

I left Concord, Massachusetts, Wednesday morning, September 25th, 1850, for Quebec. … I wished only to be set down in Canada, and take one honest walk there as I might in Concord woods of an afternoon. ~ Henry Thoreau, in his opening paragraph of  A Yankee in Canada.

Henry Thoreau and Ellery Channing made their Quebec trip at first by train and by steamer, and then took to the roads. Early this month, I joined a group of Quebecois and Americans to follow part of their walking path by car and on foot. The two-day outing was organized by Jacques Delorme and Jean Cloutier of Groupe de Simplicite Voluntaire de Quebec. We started in old Quebec city and ventured out into the countryside to the east, just as Thoreau and Channing did back in 1850. Along the way we saw many of the same sights, and we seemed to be truly following in their footsteps. Here is a short report to connect both trips.

As he rattled along the rails heading north, Thoreau “botanized” from the train. He noticed the woodbine, or Virginia creeper, turning its brilliant autumn red. It hung on trees “like a red scarf,” he wrote. “It was a little exciting, suggesting bloodshed, or at least a military life, like an epaulet or sash, as if it were dyed with the blood of the trees whose wounds it was inadequate to stanch.” Since this is one of my favorite natural observations from Thoreau, I made a point of searching for Virginia creeper during this visit. I wasn’t disappointed. The vine twirled around trees in the forests of the Adirondacks of New York. It rested on and took over fences in Canada. It hung from maples in Quebec, just as it had in Henry’s day. It is still here, still turning its signature maroon and crimson.

Virginia creeper on a tree in the Quebec countryside.

Virginia creeper on a tree in the Quebec countryside.

Like Thoreau and Channing, we toured old Quebec city. We saw the 1759 battle site of the Plains of Abraham, the citadel, the old city hall, the Wolfe-Montcalm monument, a few museums, and many other buildings and streets that Thoreau and Channing either saw or walked past. We three Americans kept saying to one another, “You know, we’re not that far from home. And yet it feels as though we’ve been transported to another place and time.” We meant this in a good and interesting way, of course. Thoreau must have had similar feelings. He wrote that after only two days of travel, “We were taking a walk in Canada, in the Seigniory of Beauport, a foreign country, which a few days before had seemed almost as far off as England and France. … Well, I thought to myself, here I am in a foreign country; let me have my eyes about me, and take it all in.” The trouble is that Quebec offers too much to take in. You can’t see everything at once, or even at all.

The citadel rampart and the city beyond.

The citadel rampart and the city beyond.

We left the city and walked east along present-day Avenue Royale, the same road that Thoreau took into the countryside. We passed homes that were built of native stone in the mid- to late 1600s. Most had old family-owned stone root cellars built right into the hillside. We were lucky: we had reservations to stay at local inns for the night. But Thoreau had difficulties finding a place to sleep, since he saw no public houses along the roadway. The language barrier was part of his challenge, too. The home where he and Channing finally ended up belonged to Jean Baptiste Binet and his wife, Genevieve. “We here talked, or murdered French all the evening with the master of the house and his family, and probably had a more amusing time than if we had completely understood one another,” Thoreau wrote. At bedtime, the men had to climb up to a high chamber with a wooden rail around it to reach a bed outfitted with linen sheets. Although Quebecois researchers disagree on the exact Binet house that Thoreau stayed in, they say that one of the prime candidates is a building that operates today as a Mexican restaurant called Senor Sombrero. We stopped here to take a peek and to imagine the past.

The former Binet home where Thoreau may have slept overnight.

The former Binet home where Thoreau may have slept overnight.

As we continued on, we passed pick-your-own orchards with long lines of cars waiting for spaces to open in the parking lots. Random apple trees stood right next to the road, just waiting for passers-by to reach out and to grab a few samples for themselves. Apple-lover that he was, Thoreau took note of the trees here, too. “There were plenty of apples,” he said, “very fair and sound, by the roadside, but they were so small as to suggest the origin of the apple in the crab.” Later, when he and Channing walked on to Sainte Anne, someone brought them more apples. “They were exceedingly fair and glossy, and it was evident that there was no worm in them; but they were as hard almost as a stone, as if the season was too short to mellow them. … I declined eating one, much as I admired it.” And so he turned away from Quebec apples. Our own Henry Thoreau (aka historical interpreter Richard Smith) did not decline the opportunity. He and some others took a few bites of fruit. I did not imbibe. Those who did said they were good but that they leaned toward the tart or sour side.

Our own Henry Thoreau, historical interpreter Richard Smith, picking a roadside treat.

Our own Henry Thoreau, historical interpreter Richard Smith, picking a roadside treat.

In crisp autumn sunshine, we walked between the hillside and the St. Lawrence River, where the natural geology makes for stunning waterfalls. The most spectacular ones are Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency) and Canyon Sainte-Anne. Thoreau and Channing scrambled around and admired both of these falls. Of Montmorency, he wrote: “It is a splendid introduction to the scenery of Quebec. Instead of an artificial fountain in the square, Quebec has this magnificent natural waterfall to adorn one side of its harbor.” Today both sites offer somewhat sturdy bridges so that visitors can walk above and over the falls. They can’t help those of us who have issues with heights, though. I wouldn’t have gotten over the Montmorency bridge without the support of several members of our group, for which I was grateful. I tackled the one at the canyon on my own – twice! both over and back! – but I did so on tiptoe, tentatively and gingerly, and without looking down at the water. I had to do it because I knew what lay ahead: the replica of the Walden house that had been built here years ago. Local people knew that Thoreau made his visit in 1850. The spot where you can first view the full length of the falls is now marked with a house built to Thoreau’s specifications. This was our final destination on this trip. Those of us who succeeded in reaching the house got signed certificates to show for our efforts.

Successful saunterers at the Walden house replica at Canyon Sainte-Anne, October 2, 2016.

Successful saunterers at the Walden house replica at Canyon Sainte-Anne, October 2, 2016.

“I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” ~ The opening sentence of “A Yankee in Canada”

What we got 166 years later were good photographs, great stories and memories, and a passel of new friends. Oh, and something else, too: an invitation to come back next year and to take this honest walk once again. Well, you don’t have to ask us twice. We’re in! Does anyone else want to come along?

The author, Mr. Thoreau, and walk organizer Jean Cloutier.

The author, Mr. Thoreau, and walk organizer Jean Cloutier.

[Photos by Mary Lynn Brannon and Corinne H. Smith]


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Looking Upstream – Mary Oliver’s New Book Arrives

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. Thoreau, Walden

During one of my middling lives, I edited a semiannual journal, and, in the midst of my ten-year stint with the blue pencil, I received a great gift. It arrived as part of a note in reply to one of mine: “Yes,” the note began, “I would be happy to contribute a poem to your journal.” That poem became the first of many, and later they were joined by some short essays, encounters with weather and light. How often does an editor get to publish his favorite writer?

As celebration of the coming of Upstream, Mary Oliver’s newest book of essays and “other writings,” I have in mind a little story. And so I went looking in the bins of the past, where I keep some notebooks and correspondence. Much of what I remember from those days seems random or episodic, but I do have these few bins, and I recalled their containing both a student journal and, perhaps, a letter. So I went looking.

There, easily found, was the journal, a series of reflections from a Thoreau-anchored course called Reading the Land that I taught one fall during the 90s. SA, a meticulous student, had typed her entries, and I began to scan them for the one I wanted. Late in the semester, we had been reading Oliver’s West Wind, and one of the poems had recalled for SA some family summer time in Wyoming; specifically, she had twinned a climb of a mountain with reading an Oliver poem and called them both “experiences” that had left her awed. I was looking for that entry.

I found all the others, set neatly in order, and I read few, reflecting back on the privilege a teacher has in seeing into the minds of others, learning fresh perspective, experiencing other worlds.

But the entry I’d recalled was missing, and that absence triggered a second memory. Where was it? Ah, yes, now I remembered: I’d sent it on to the poet herself, thinking that she would be pleased to have a reader who found “experience” equally on the mountain and in her poem. Who wouldn’t want such a reader? I’d reasoned, and I’d been right.

A week passed, and then a letter arrived. In the Courier font she favored, Oliver said that SA was the sort of reader she hoped for, a reader who found a poem much more than an intellectual exercise, or a few moments with a grouping of words. SA had entered her reading of the poem as she climbed into and through a landscape.

I was glad I’d sent the original.

In a few days, I’ll go to my local bookstore and get my ordered copy of Upstream. And then I’ll settle in to reading it, and I will go slowly upstream and through landscape. It will be, I know, an experience.



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Oriole Sun

“…The fiery hangbird…” – Thoreau’s description of an oriole in his Journal, 12/29/53

An all-day rain wanes
and the hawk atop the hemlock
fans her feathers to dry

in the wind, and the light
in the party-colored leaves
is just so…no it’s now

the oriole that circles
the hawk his body brighter
than three spread red tails,

the hawk a stubborn thumb

thrust into the sky just…so
what does a hawk do

amid the thick rain? If
I were her I’d find
a thick pine and side-

step in along a branch
mid-tree and listen and
listen to the rain’s

roar…or maybe, perhaps, I’d sit
like a totem-top and wait
for the bright sun of an oriole,

and just be here when
it came and swooped and
swerved its fiery orbits around me.

...the fiery hangbird

…the fiery hangbird

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After a Rain – On the Spot

It is unwise for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. Thoreau, Journal, 7/8/58

Dry summer has stretched into dry fall, and today in the mountains, the much touted leaves show drought’s stress – colors are muted and many leaves are blotched with brown and crisp even before they fall to the ground. So, this morning’s rain carries with it a small sigh of relief; the ground and the woods breathe a little more easily for a while.

And I am on the edge of small absence as the pattering stops and the shallow puddles glisten a bit in the gray morning light; I have a few hours before an appointment, and I scan my map for a trail that fits those few hours. Then, having settled on an out-and-back to Low’s Bald Spot, where, if it clears, I’ll look up into the Great Gulf and at the neat pyramid of Mt. Adams and the shambling mass of its neighbor, Mt. Madison, I fill water bottles, lace up my shoes and set out.

Mts. Madison and Adams from the other side.

Mts. Madison and Adams from the other side.

How can the 8 a.m. woods be so dark? I wonder as I quick-step around faintly-shining stones. A slight breeze shakes secondary rain from the leaves; I am wet with leftover drops and, soon, with work. A long corridor of climbing stretches ahead into the gray wherever, and I drop my gaze to the ten-foot puzzle always before me and go up. It happens then: the whole little enterprise of motion and focus that is me meshes; whatever lies behind me or more than 10 feet ahead, stays there. I am perfectly present. It feels like rain after a long dry spell. “Ah,” says self, and I realize that I am smiling.

The Spot, which truly is a low one amid the high peaks, requires a hand-aided scramble up its final rocks, and, in the now-thin woods, day has broken open with light. I am, I realize, about to get more riches of reward. Clouds roll up out of the valley to my north, and then, to my west Adams and Madison ghost through the clouds. They seem impossibly tall and distant, though, if I were to abandon plans, I could be there in a few hours. Then, a giant appears – the ridge that leads up to Nelson Crag is so close it could fall on me, if the earth were to abandon principle and tumble to new arrangement. And the bright white tatters of valley cloud keep rising, keep catching the here-and-gone-and-here sun that has found a slot of blue over the Carters. Not far above the winds of a front are calling all these clouds to change, but here the breeze is faint, and even though I am wet and cooling and it is fall, I can sit back on this fresh-washed rock and watch the whole aerial show – more smiling sans thoughts.

In another season (coming soon), Mts. Adams and Madison, from Low's Bald Spot

In another season (coming soon), Mts. Adams and Madison, from Low’s Bald Spot

If a day, an enterprise, a quest, is truly blest, the way back will be equal to the way out. Just so on this morning, where somehow the wide and wild visions of cloud and mountains shrink again to the composure of the immediate and its stones and footpath. Rhythm sets up and I match it with chuffs of expressed air – all the way down I sing wordlessly and dance over and on the stones.

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It is pleasant to embark on a voyage, if only for a short excursion, the boat to be your home for the day, especially if it is neat and dry. A sort of moving studio it becomes, you can carry so many things with you. It is almost as if you put oars out at your windows and moved your house along. Thoreau, Journal, 8/31/52

Here: sunrise – 6:28 a.m.; sunset – 6:34 p.m. A few days away, light’s six-month reign will give way to night’s rise.

Getting there on another such day.

Getting there on another such day.

Floatation off the north end of Birch Island – languid, sun-on sentences punctuated by falling acorns, some of which land with a plop in the water, while others rattle the leaves, and a few pinball among the branches, making hollow comment. On the way here, I have seen nuts afloat, colonizers headed for some far shore, whole paragraphs of leaves bundled in little darkness.

A lightest breeze riffles the water, and it pushes my boat into the shore grass, which scrapes and sighs along its sides. We – my boat and I – lodge there, 6 inches above the mud, and the sun catches in the southside folds of my shirt; my northside cools. It is, except for the arrhythmic marimba of the acorns, utterly quiet. Except also, now that I am so still, or still so, for the tiny splashes of two-inch-long fish that hurry and leap around me. It could be celebration of this day, but it is not – a larger splash tells me a larger fish is fishing these shallows. Getting on with it.

Later, halfway up in a pine, I see a single white egret…mid-migration? just setting out? Once, in the same season, we saw 16 egrets in the same white pine; they looked like the flung towels of some giant, maybe summer, who had stalked off after bathing in the bay.

Empty, mostly, these islands…though from White an eagle lumps into the air, pretends to soar, lumps his wings some more, feigns a dive and turns back to his tree. So much, he seems to say, for all this work at motion; I’ll wait for something still to float by. Which I do.

It is that sort of day.

Green water, white rock - floatation.

Green water, white rock – floatation.

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A Walk toward Walden

Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Thoreau, “The Ponds,” Walden

A quick trip to Concord on September 17th offered too a free hour and a half, which was enough: drive to the Sudbury Road parking and leave by trail up Bear Garden Hill – this is the long, or crosslots approach to Walden’ s west shore, and, when I have time, it’s my favored way there. Here, then, for those of you who are at distance, are some photos from that walk, which, after reaching the pond, worked its way down to the Sudbury River at Fairhaven Bay, and then looped back along the river.

Trail through the oak and pine forest of Beargarden.

Trail through the oak and pine forest of Bear Garden.


Looking from the west shore to the east

Looking from the west shore to the east




The colors Thoreau so loved persist, though the water table is low and the pond looks hard used.

The colors Thoreau so loved persist, though the water table is low and the pond looks hard used.


Across the water to Thoreau's Cove.

Across the water to Thoreau’s Cove.





Along that way.

Along that way.


Fairhaven Bay and the turn for home. (Note the low water level on the river too.)

Fairhaven Bay and the turn for home. (Note the low water level on the river too.)

All that was missing form this walk was immersion, but dripping in my next appointment seemed a dampness too far. Next time.

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Everybody Needs a Park, Part II – Encounters

By Corinne H. Smith

“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, October 15, 1859

Earlier this summer, I spent an afternoon at a state park I had never visited before. The place had once been a farming community with a creek running through it. The properties were flooded in the mid-1960s, when the state built a dam and a reservoir to supply water for a nearby town and paper mill. The park and the lake opened for public use in 1970. To give you some perspective, I can tell you that the park itself is ten times bigger than Walden Pond State Reservation. The lake is 20 times bigger than Walden Pond. But this is not a glacial lake, like Walden is. The water has filled in the natural nooks and crannies of an irregular hilly landscape. One of the larger fingers of the lake had a nice trail that followed its curves for a mile and a half. I decided that this was the path I would take. It was a sunny, warm, blue-sky day. My schedule was my own. I could saunter and spend as much time here as I wanted to. Or not.

Because of the location of the parking lot, it made the most sense to take this trail clockwise, with the water always to the right. So off I headed, with the woods and thickets on one side, and the water and wetland vegetation on the other.

I was only starting down the path when I already heard rapid footsteps right behind me. I stepped out of the way just as a small boy dashed past. His father wasn’t too far behind, running with his cell phone held in an outstretched hand. From it, I heard a metallic female voice say, “Follow the trail around the curve.”

“Do you know about this stuff?” he called to me, waving the phone, while he was on the run. “It’s GREAT!” And away he sped.

I shook my head to myself. I stopped and admired the wider view of the sunlight hitting the lake. When I peeked over the cattails, I saw three nice-sized turtles sunning themselves on a log. I quickly turned back to share this news with someone, but the man and his son were well out of sight. They’d zipped right past these guys without even seeing them, without even guessing that they could and would be here. Their app must not have been programmed for possible reptile sightings. How could anyone hope to digitize a dynamic park experience?


The path dipped down to a place that higher water had once covered. Ridges of mud marked with hiker tracks crossed the middle of the walkway. I stepped around the spot — not because I wanted to keep my boots clean, but because I saw four butterflies landing and swirling and twirling just above the mud. Two tiger swallowtails and two black swallowtails were taking turns at … well, SOMETHING. I couldn’t see anything there that would interest either them or me. But then again, I wasn’t a butterfly.

I looked up as two young power walkers, a woman and a man, came striding down toward me. I pointed to the butterflies and said, “Don’t step on them.” Neither body broke the pace, but they duly stepped around the mud, just as I had done.

“What are they doing?” the woman asked, looking down, but not missing her beat.

“I don’t know,” I said. Then I pointed back up the hill. “There are three turtles on a log up there, too.”

“Cool,” she said. But she and her partner kept right on marching, with arms swinging in time. Making a stop for random butterflies or turtles was obviously not part of their fitness regimen. They too were soon out of sight.

Onward I meandered. I came to a paved road, a remnant of the days when this area had been farmed and peopled. The road dead-ended at the water’s edge. It offered a nice view of the lake and the flocks of Canada geese that floated on it. But it wasn’t the trail I was supposed to follow. So I backtracked and found the turn-off that I had missed earlier. I picked up a nice big feather that a goose had left behind, and I tucked it into my notebook. Then a family of four humans walked toward me, led by a panting beagle who was straining forward on his leash. Well, there go the geese, I thought to myself.

We made small talk about which route to follow: the path or the road to the water. They weren’t sure at first if they were even going to continue. The two children were fairly young to be expected to walk the whole length of this trail. “Did you see the turtles at the beginning?” I asked. No, they hadn’t. I didn’t even ask about the butterflies. “Well, if you decide to turn around and go back that way, be sure to look for them.” They said they would. But in the end, they headed up the hill to continue around the lake. I stopped to consider the straight row of young sugar maples that lined the road. Someone or something had planted them, for sure. I tried to imagine how the place had looked when people still lived here.

Two hefty middle-aged men in shorts came toward me. We too had the same discussion about the differences between the road and the trail. They followed the road to the water. I headed up the hill to continue along the dirt path.

At the top of the ridge lay a relocated cemetery. All of the surnames on the stones were of German origin, and the lives they represented dated to the 1800s. They had made good homes here. And now they were resting in a peaceful place, in the midst of a state park. The silence was broken by a wood thrush call from the thicket farther back in the woods. Henry Thoreau’s favorite bird! What a lovely song it had! I stood and listened and smiled. And I hesitated. Should I keep walking? Or should I just stand here and listen to the thrush? I wasn’t following anyone else’s timetable. I didn’t have to be anywhere else. So I stood for at least five minutes, then walked as slowly as I could, gradually away from the thrush’s song. Eventually I couldn’t hear it anymore. I was happy to have heard it at all.

Sudden crashes came from the underbrush between me and the water. I expected to see a deer or a turkey burst through the bushes. Instead, I spied the two men in shorts. They had decided to bushwhack their way from the dead-end road to a place farther along where they could catch the path. They were red-faced and out of breath by the time they reached me. “You took the road less traveled, I see,” I said. “Yup,” said one. Then they turned onto the path in front me and hurried on their way. I wondered if they had noticed the poison ivy growing on the hillside that they just passed through. Ah, well, they were already gone now. They would probably find out later, one way or another.


I found another spot to watch more Canada geese. They floated, occasionally chatted to one another, and then finally paddled on to another cove. I took the feather out of my notebook and laid it in the grass. I didn’t really need it. Maybe another park visitor did.

When I reached the end of the trail, I found three members of the family of four, all in a slight panic. The beagle was flopped out on the grass, panting in exhaustion. No one had thought to bring water along for him. They were giving him the remainders of their own bottles. The father had run off to get more. I didn’t have anything to offer them, unfortunately. I could only hope that their neglect wasn’t life-threatening for the animal. I shook my head to myself as I crossed the bridge to loop back to the parking lot.

A dozen of us had shared the trail for an hour or two that afternoon. We had vastly different experiences. Did everyone get what they expected? Did everyone have “a good time?” The dog definitely did not. And the two guys in shorts may have ended up with a negative delayed reaction because of their trailblazing. They may have had to search their medical cabinets for stray bottles of calamine lotion that night. I can confirm that I had an enjoyable outing. Otherwise, who am I to judge?

“It is a great art to saunter.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 26, 1841

Yes, Henry, it is. And I’m thinking that perhaps we need to give people lessons in this great art, before we turn them loose into public parks.


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Someone Has to Go

All sorts of men come to the Cattle-Show. I see one with a blue hat*. Thoreau, Journal, 9/29/57.

There are days…when it pays…to break routine. Yesterday the light came to the window…just so…and I said, “someone has to go.”

The sea is only a few miles away, and yet, when I arrive, I see it is enjoying a very different day. Yes, the air has a familiar translucence – it is so-clear September – but a quick check of the water shows there’s a torrent of air in motion above. White-caps wash the bay, and there’s the always sound of restless water. The wind, still from the summer-south, insists, driving the water up bay; I will go the other way.

And that occasions a moment’s hesitation – do I want that work against this wind? But then I consider also that I can “hide” in the lee of an island chain for part of the way, and I know too that, a few hours from now, when I turn back, I will hitch a ride on the tide and the wind and waves will be at my back. Work to get out; glide home – good division of day. And now the water is simply “live”; I like live water.

Here then, because someone had to go, is a small photo gift from a midpoint of this day away – it is only the view of and from Little French Island and a few late-season beach roses; you will have to imagine the osprey-keenings, the loon-calls and the seals who grumbled their indecision about whether to give up their sun-rocks for the thin yellow boat a hundred yards away (I kept my distance and they stayed put).

May you be the next one to put on your blue hat and go.

* Note from Jeffrey Cramer: “When Thoreau presented his “Succession of Forest Trees” before the Middlesex Agricultural Society at the Middlesex Cattle Show and Ploughing Match on 20 September 1860, he began: ‘Every man is entitled to come to Cattleshow, even a transcendentalist.'”











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Are You Okay?

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. Thoreau, Walden.

“Are you okay?”

The two ten-year-olds pause, balanced on their bicycles, as I recover my stride and footing.

“Yes, thanks,” I say…”just caught a toe on a root.” And then I keep on down into the woods, and they remount and ride on the other way.

As I run, I wonder about this little moment and its concern.

Here in the woods, away a bit from the everyday setting of streets and homes, have I just met two boys trained in empathy by their parents? Or was that question involuntary, simply automatic concern for a fellow two-legger, who has stumbled, a white-haired two-legger to boot?


All of this has been much in mind as I’ve read through Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, whose subtitle reads, On Homecoming and Belonging. In it, Junger takes as primary subject and example the difficulty modern soldiers experience rejoining our society, and how this experience differs from that of warriors in tribal societies. Those warriors, who bore with them the horror and trauma of combat, returned to groups configured to receive them, to help them readjust, to help them be okay. Junger points out that our soldiers return to a society designed for the individual, one where need of aid is often seen as weakness, one where isolation is rampant. In such a world, healing, which requires social context, gets delayed, or doesn’t happen at all. Disability takes over instead; life dissipates.

Having been trained in individuation and individualism, having learned to think that hope arrives one person at a time, I find myself wary of groups, or tribes, where the expectation is that a person subsume her or himself to the group, for its good. And yet, it feels as if we – country, world – are wheeling out of control, as individuals fly off at all angles in pursuit of self(ies?) So much self regard; so little group regard.

Here, I think also of Henry Thoreau, seer of the singular, urger of self-realization, of making the self real. Thoreau set out for Walden in pursuit of “I.” But, more importantly, I think, once he’d discovered that “I,” he returned to the group – both to town and to the larger world via his writing – to see what effect he might have in advancing that group.

“Are you okay?” he might have asked rhetorically as he watched his town and country stumble, lose stride in a time whose troubles seem resonant with ours. Would it recover balance? Regain stride?

Walden ends famously with the image of the morning star, with “more day to dawn.” Okay, it posits, through experiment, you know something of yourself; that’s a beginning, but only that. Now on to your allotted day/life – what will you make there? with whom?

By now, I am deep in the woods, and, if you have read along to this point, perhaps you are too. But I realize that as I return from this daily foray, I come back to the extended and extensive self of a town that is itself nested in a larger group.

And I need to keep asking of people I meet, whether in stride or knocked from it, are you okay? Are we?


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The Road from Walden


Beyond the small tribe of relations and friends who greet me by name, it can be tough to find the lovable. On my way to work today, a cyclist snarled at me because I rolled up to a stop sign and then, seeing no one, pulled out on to the road; the cyclist, who was riding against traffic, and so, was on the wrong side of the road, took umbrage at having to brake as I turned onto the street. My heart rate shot up, and I was tempted to turn and follow him, give him my 3 cents worth for his 2. A few minutes later, an impatient fellow motorist honked twice when I wouldn’t accelerate through a yellow-light-going red; beside me as I fumed was a truck with a spent muffler and a confederate flag flying behind the cab. I was pretty sure whoever was driving behind the tinted window was chronically angry.

Once in the little room where I write, I thought it wise to avoid reading the news sites I also frequent. Aside from occasional visits to the apparently tiny land of Altruism, most of the copy there features a mix of trouble and small-fisted posturing. Where to turn?

One tough-minded place is a section that many skip over at the end of Walden’s long first chapter, Economy. After laying out his sense of the state of the world and asking his readers to examine how they configure their lives, Thoreau turns to the problem of how to love his neighbors, or how to be among them: what joins the “phil” with “anthropy?” he asks. Is it even possible, you may ask.

Predictably, Thoreau dismisses the most common philanthropy, giving money or others resources to someone in need. He pays particular attention to a system of giving, to ongoing support that one might offer to a poor family, for example; we would call it welfare. What, other than dependency, does this accomplish? he wants to know.

Already, early in my reading, I have left liberal-land, or left the left and its redistributive government.
I am among the free-range libertarians now. Out here in I-land, one form of love is leaving, leaving others alone, letting them “be.” Perhaps then that “being” is the route to “becoming”; perhaps then each can become self according to individual “genius.” Perhaps.

Having passed through and then worked in the liberal academy, I am suspicious; I fear an anarchy of “I,” which means I fear the loosing of our worst tendencies, which I must see as central to who we are. And yet, as is amply clear, the current order has been bent to those tendencies anyway.

“What have you got to lose?” I say to myself, and my flesh crawls at unintentional quotation. Is there really overlap between the life of someone I revere and the most narcissistic candidate I’ve ever seen?

But then, when I consider Philanthropy’s question – how best do I love other people – I find solace: Henry Thoreau saw it as serious question; it informed all his writing, as he sought and succeeded in bringing us news of the universe. In the narrow mind of the candidate whose name I will not mention, the question seems subverted into this one: How best to love myself and have others do so too? I’ll leave that question in little hands.

I return then to Thoreau’s final pages of “Economy.” There, he writes,

If, then, we would restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic or natural means, let us first be as simple as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.

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The Way

If I should reverse the usual, — go forth and saunter in the fields all the forenoon, then sit down in my chamber in the afternoon, which it is so unusual for me to do, — it would be like a new season to me, and the novelty of it would inspire me. Thoreau, Journal, 7/23/51, 8 A.M.

I try to work out how the porcupine perched to gnaw the upper left corner of this trail-sign. It seems likely, s/he was upside down, as the tooth-grooves trend up slightly to the left. And I wonder at the wood’s appeal – did it have still a trace of salt-sweat from the trail-worker who picked the 2” X 6” slat from a pack, picked too a nail, and, with 4 practiced strokes, hammered home the marker?

“TRAIL,” is says, simply. This way on. And even now, early in this little tale, you are seeing me as scofflaw: “What’s he doing with that sign?” forms in your mind, followed by images of walkers straying from the point where the sign once was. “Only a real J would take a sign meant to show others the way.”


Here’s quick defense: I took this sign from a woodland no one could wander any more. Mechanized loggers with their huge capture-claws had been there recently, and, what was once a trail, or TRAIL, simply wasn’t. There was the familiar sign tacked to a thin, remaining tree amid piles of slash washed by unfamiliar sunlight. The relocated trail was higher on the ridge, ambling along its crest, and its signage, while similar, was newly stenciled and tacked to trees also. I was conducting a post-mortem on a trail I knew better than most, one I’d walked for 30 years, until the land had changed hands invisibly, and the machines had showed up…most visibly.

So, my sign’s a symbol…of what was…and, in its new place, a reminder that I’d best remember the best way into the world is a foot path that unfolds at a few miles per hour, the speed of perception.

Yesterday, on the amply-trod Commons trails near home, I was slow-footing along when I heard a chewing sound. I looked right, and, as I did, two heads rose from a berry bush ten feet away. The two fawns puzzled over the two-legger before them; I made eye contact and stayed still. We took each other in over a minute. Finally, one snorted and, turning easily in air, bounded off, white flag of tail raised; the other followed, exactly, down to the snort. Gradually, the space where they had been filled with air.

Just so on a morning trail.

My sign, I think, is really a reminder, a command – TRAIL! Here’s to yours.


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Each Town Should Have a Park

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation…If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already. Thoreau, Journal 10/15/59

I picked yesterday to be away. I packed enough into the thin needle of my boat and pointed out, at least at first, at the horizon and the uncertain island that appears to slump in that direction. Stroke by stroke , I drew nearer; gradually the island grew. Its tall pines distinguished themselves, its wind-shorn seaside cliff became wrinkled with nearness. I was, I reflected, getting there, even as “there” kept receding toward the horizon.

Once at Ragged Island, I made my way to Mark, which marked also the turn to the north and away from the edge, and on toward Flag (another sort of marker), where I pointed west again, intent of travel’s circle. I pulled over at the Elm Islands, two wrists of rock from the submerged sea-giant; the Elms belong to the birds and, of course, to the sea. A lone tree centers the larger of the two Elms, and it is an elm, brought these two miles offshore by human hand. The local forester who made this transplant did so in honor of his father, who loved trees, elms especially. And so far, the disease that’s after our mainland elms hasn’t crossed the water; it is a hopeful tree.

Stopping at the Elms is free, and, as I drank my water and munched my oats, I was grateful to whatever power has kept it so.

Perhaps that gratitude was precursor to some news that came my way when I returned to the screens and pings of the hurried world. There in local headlines was announcement of a national monument near Katahdin (which, by the way, has no Mount before it – Katahdin means greatest mountain in the Penobscot language, and so, no need for the English repeat). Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an 87,500-acre seed of preserved land to complement Percival Baxter’s remarkable gift of 200,000 acres that form Baxter Park. Roxanne Quimby’s gift – made possible, I suppose, by the labor of millions of Burt’s bees – matches Thoreau’s ’59 advice and our best instincts at a time when appeal after appeal is being made to our worst. It is a seed of wild happiness.

photo from Wikipedia

photo from Wikipedia

Or, in fitting with my day just floated, a land enough apart for a tree to grow.

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Barred or Welcome?

“One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix Nebulosa (now Strix Varia)) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I was standing within a rod of him…and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings of unsuspected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them.” Thoreau, Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.

An hour or so into some trail time on a little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid the glacial gifts of angled rock. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at “getting there,” and so, on a good day with a good mind, the ten-foot puzzle before you is all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm that is pure pleasure.

I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-5 bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings – broad wings – and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance; then, I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.

Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, “ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground – OWL!

Barred Owl. Photo from

Barred Owl. Photo from

At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring – somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body – and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind – middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.

I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. He’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me; well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.

After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on his mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We all moved on.

Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within 6 miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. Welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.

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Eighth Month Eighth Day

My mind, like many, like Henry Thoreau’s, is drawn by symmetry, and so the date 8/8 seemed cast as a lure. It was, as is often true in this column, morning, time of coffee and a little reading (see below) and backyard gazing. And, as I idled, the day seemed the one where the month had tipped, begun its sidle to September.

I intuited this in part because the traffic at the blueberry flughafen, where for these weeks our backyard birds, led by catbird and cardinal, have sought their berries, had dropped off. It had gone from being a metropolitan fly-in to a sleepy regional airport, with its mechanic napping in his shaded chair.

What was.

What was.

And, where just days ago, I could see clustered rounds of blue, a promise of berries, now I could see only a sparse dotting of green, summer’s leftovers. Enough, to be sure, to keep the catbird coming and going, but that morning s/he was the only flier.

Today's flughafen

Today’s flughafen

This stretch days sometimes feels like a slow inbreath, before the rush of fall comes on, before school gathers in the summer-dreamy children, before the winds arrive in earnest. I am deep in August, but always aware that what’s next is stirring nearby.

And so I smiled especially at what my morning readings – of book and berry bush – brought me to. Here’s the opening stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem 316, written some time in the Thoreau-familiar year of 1862:

The Wind didn’t come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor joggle a Hat —
He’s a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —

These lines made me think of September and Thoreau simultaneously — the wind and the word, transitive, yes, but I can “Rely on that —“ arriving all the way from 1862.


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Reading the News – Publication Day

August 9 – Wednesday. — to Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing. Thoreau, Journal, 1854

This morning’s poem is Ode to Enchanted Light, one of Pablo Neruda’s poems to the usual, or to the extraordinary everyday. And, for me, it must be in translation. Still, its long vertical line invites me forward; the pages pass rapidly, satisfying the little workman inside me, who likes to get things done.

But, perhaps to the workman’s chagrin, my eyes and mind keep snagging on apt phrases, on insights, and then, I slow, often lay the book back and gaze out into the early light of the backlit yard. A mourning dove wings down and begins hunting seeds, which, in this season, seem numerous; then, the bird stops, appears to contemplate something and pecks down, lifting then a stalk with a dead, brown clover flower on it. The dove lifts it up and down, looking like a pump handle after the morning’s water. “What’s this?,” it seems to ask; then it struts a little – such a fine find; I am the bird.

Like reader-me, the dove gives up the task of finding seeds, of getting on with it, and seems fascinated with the stalk and its browned flower. It struts some more, turning as if to show its prize in all angles and lights. I become convinced – the dove is the bird. My little workman frowns.

Then, suddenly, the dove arrows off. It is swift and gone, though still holding tight its brown flower. I am about to read a next poem, when today’s date flashes in my mind – 8/9; ah, it is pub-day: Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, is 162 years into its world tour, and it shows no signs of flagging. I go to the bookshelf and pick a copy from the line. It has a brown cover; I hold it aloft – my brown flower discovery. I check its angles in the morning light. I resolve to go “to the woods.” Then, I arrow off into the day.


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Summer Lesson

“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” Thoreau, Journal, 12/11/55. Note: Though this lead-in entry from Thoreau’s Journal comes from the other side of the year, it’s phrasing seems perfect for what I’m seeing now. Just so with Henry, I think – he could see all the way to summer even on the shortest of days.

Early August: my daily negotiation with the squirrels and birds continues. From the deck of the breakfast table, I watch the blueberry bushes. Last month they looked as if they bore hundreds of little white candles to summer’s birthday; now, they offer a slow genuflection as their green-going-purple berries swell a bit each day and pull their branches down. It looks to be another good year. Albeit a contested one.

Here, for one, is a gray squirrel. He is well fed, amply rounded in this season of abundance, and he has an eye on my berries. A few don’t bother me, but if he picks to pack that rounded belly full, I will rise from my chair, open the window and hiss/bark at him – some hybrid threat intended to make me sound like trouble.

A few minutes ago, on of Henry Thoreau’s “striped squirrels,” known to us as chipmunks, emerged from beneath a branch facing me. “What a fat face you have,” I might have said if I were in nursery-rhyme frame of mind. Instead, I gawked and then began calculating: that must be at least four berries per cheek to get such a bulge. The chipmunk made for the yew bush in looping hops, and perhaps I imagined that his heavy head brought him down from each hop a little faster, but I don’ think so.

No-picking peace resumes. But only for a minute. Then, the catbird returns. He or she is a choosy sort, given sometimes to plucking a berry, rolling it in beak, and then…gasp…flicking it away over winged shoulder before seizing another. Scandalized then, I half-rise from my chair.


But this time, the catbird has junior in tow, and, as I watch, adult-C gives junior-C a berry tutorial. First she – let’s call our adult the mother of our backyard trio – hops 360 degrees around junior, getting, I suppose, his attention. Teachers will recognize this behavior. Then, with junior focused, she leaps/flies up a foot and nabs a berry from a low branch, settles back by junior and shows him the berry…which she then eats. Good bird.

Junior hops a bit and then waited. Where’s mine his head-tilt seems to say…mine, and mine and mine…it’s always appeared. In answer, the lesson gets repeated, even mama swallowing the plucked berry. Really? Junior seems to say. But then in somewhat ungainly imitation, he leaps at a berry…and misses. Ah, I think, it does take teaching and learning; even catbirds aren’t berry-adepts. The whole he’s-a-natural argument often hides the natural’s teachers, but there she is.

The lesson goes on, and mama-catbird must be working up a hunger with all her hopping because she eats more berries than I’ve ever witnessed. Finally, Junior nabs one.

Even I fluff my feathers with pride. It takes a whole berry-bush to raise a catbird.

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A Deliberate Garden

by Deborah Bier

“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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Gardening Deliberately

Gardening deliberately is how we manage the 1878 Kitchen Garden at Thoreau Farm, the birth house of Henry David Thoreau.

Such gardening is also one way to live deliberately and to become more present to all that is unfolding within and around our garden.  A garden is a place of constant change, and, If we are conscious and aware of its nuances, we can be more responsive to its needs. Here at the birthplace, we explore all garden choices carefully, making decisions reflective of our deepest values and principals.  I do not follow any single practice or school of gardening, no pre-set protocols. Instead, through study and experience, I’ve equipped myself with a wide variety of approaches, using the each one to meet the challenge of the moment.  I rely strongly upon observation and experimentation, and, in turn, the garden regularly reminds me to be open and aware, present to the moment.

Thoreau Farm’s garden is entirely individual – it will never be exactly replicated anywhere else, not even in the same spot from one year to the next. And so, no famous book, gardener, farmer or horticulturist can know what to do with this kitchen garden better than those who tend and visit it often.

Like any type of deliberation, gardening deliberately is the opposite of living on “autopilot.” It is responsiveness, not knee-jerk reaction. It involves being fully alive to the experience, not being distracted, numb or deadened.  The sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes of the garden … the patterns and colors, the scent of the leaves, the feel of the wind – these are a source of much of my joy as I work here.

From the garden

From the garden

Deliberate laziness
“The true cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life that is required to be exchanged for it.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

And so I ask:  Is “the amount of life required to be exchanged” for these garden tasks really worth their cost in time, energy, money, and opportunity? And from the sunflowers, from the squash, I hear answer – “Yes, they say. Yes.”

What is truly the most important task in the garden today? What is really not crucial, or even a waste of time?  How much is on the list because it’s what we think must be done – because that is what we have been told to do by others?

Such deliberation almost always leads to simplifying, throwing out some hallowed methods in favor of ones that more closely mimic the processes we discover. In doing so, we have ended up with what we think are some very effective gardening methods that also are a lot less time consuming and exhausting.

Let me give you an example of deliberate laziness we’re practicing during this nearly rainless and hot summer. Wild animals are desperate for water. Baby ground hogs and rabbits amazingly fit between our one-by-four-inch fence wires, and have eaten all of our beans and brassicas down to nothingness.

We could spend a lot of time and energy replanting multiple times, and go to all kinds of extreme measures to exclude, trap, or kill these animals. But we realize humans do not depend upon these particular crops to survive, and that replantings will end up being eaten by the next litter of baby rabbits (rabbits produce up to three litters per year; woodchucks, just one). We could also get very upset and angry at the animals, declaring war on them. But that, too, is likely a waste precious human resources.

So we are instead choosing to be happy with the crops we have that are growing well, despite the weather. We’ve chosen instead to exercise our “citizen scientist” muscles and learn from observing the garden under these conditions. Now we’re noticing what crops thrive best in the dry heat, and which are struggling. We’re also seeing which parts of the garden are doing better than others due to variations in soil quality, identifying areas we should improve this year or next. This is all important to learn as more extreme weather patterns become the norm, and gardeners need to adapt to varying unexpected conditions.
There are as many trends in gardening as there are other here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions. There are also sound gardening practices that become overblown into rigid, unbending systems with dozens of rules that adherents demand be followed exactly. You must, you should… you cannot, you must not. Adhering to so many pre-set rules is not being responsive to your garden, your conditions, your abilities.  Too many rules can actually create failure, not success, because their requirements are often complex, and there are too many to follow dependably. Such complexity also risks feelings of failure and anxiety in the gardener, which intrude on the joy of putting hands into warm, fragrant soil.  How often do we end up feeling that we can toil all day and never get everything done, much less done correctly or well?  Such work is not gardening deliberately, though it is a form of gardening.

It turns out that deliberate laziness was deeply intertwined with Henry Thoreau’s life and philosophy, though he never used the term.  He wrote that he became rich by intentionally reducing his wants. By living simply, he determined he could meet all his needs by working a mere six weeks a year.  In 19th century American terms, he was considered extremely lazy.  In 21st century terms, unlike so many of us, Henry was not too busy to pursue his self-created life path.  Only six weeks of work annually – think about the richness of life you could experience in 46 work-free weeks every year!

Reading about kitchen gardens in the 19th century suggests they were not the place for laziness, deliberate or otherwise.  Mostly tended by women who toiled endlessly, these kitchen gardens leave me utterly depressed and discouraged. But by applying the standard of deliberate laziness to Thoreau Farm’s kitchen garden we’ve updated the form to one that is far easier for 21st century denizens to embrace.

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Away – Thoreau, Prepared to See

Though a planned-for trip fell through, a few smaller adventures took its place, and one summer dusk, I found myself sitting in the back of an old, tin-walled church that had become what it once was, a community center in Deer Isle, Maine. The small building was full, its hardwood pews chocked with the fire-marshal-approved 5 people per, though I’m guessing that we now average more girth than the 5-somes that sat there 100 years ago. Until the windows were opened the air was fuzzy with heat. Our small cohort had gathered to hear from Maine’s new poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum. Stu, as islanders called him, would read a few poems and talk some about writing and creativity – “What’s the engine for that life?” asked the flyers posted around town, where most engines power lobster boats or pick-ups.

Island Summer Scene

Island Summer Scene

Kestenbaum began with three poems, and, with their clear narratives, they made easy listening, by which I mean the poems could be followed, not that they were facile. Then, in conversation with another poet, he began to talk about sustaining writing over time and amid other work – poetry may be a calling, but it isn’t often fiscally-sustaining work. Asked about his “deal” with the state for his 5-year laureate’s term, Kestenbaum said he looked forward to being “waved through the tolls on the turnpike.” Compensation clearly would come as something other than money.

“I’ve heard that reading 100 poems for every one you write is a good ratio,” he said, and then he outlined a morning where he read poems to begin his day, prime his mind. Tucked into my rear pew, I resolved – for the xth time – to go and do likewise, to read from what Robert Bly once called “News of the Universe” instead of the news websites that excite all the wrong sectors of my mind.

And so on this late summer morning, when, a month-plus past solstice, I note that sun’s shifted slightly lower in the pines, I open Take Heart, an anthology of Maine poems put together by Kestenbaum’s predecessor, Wesley McNair. And, on page 146 (I dip and read at random), I find this poem by Robert M. Chute:


I’ve never found an arrowhead,
one flinty chip of history.
Young Thoreau, they said, if he walked by
some farmer’s fresh-plowed field could just
stoop down and pick one up. As if
the spirit that shaped them drew them
up to his attention. Stoney bread crumbs
no birds will eat, these points and flakes
led him from the town into the
saving woods and wilderness which might
save us all. His faith led him onto find
what he believed. We find,
he said, what we are prepared to see.

This seems just the way to begin the day.

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Furnishing Walden – a poem for Henry’s birthday

Furnishing Walden 

a chair
                  a bed
a desk

The desk came first in 1838 as
it became apparent that the hours
afoot would be brought here

where they could be inked into lines
that would circumscribe worlds -
local paths, thickets, swamps,

birds, insects, plants, the odd
groundhog - all these ligaments
and lineaments, a sort of puritan

golem who would stir drafts later
and one by one readers
would walk out and be saved

for a day and the next day
each would saunter out
again along those lines

and every so often one
would not return. He saw
so far forward, you wonder

if he lived in his world,
but then you see him sprawled
on the young ice inching out,

reading the worm-trail of
history in the mud the whole
lens of coming winter flexing

beneath him and you know
from the seep of cold
that he was there, and you know

now know how you should live.
You push back the chair and
rock for a moment on the rockers

he attached to allow for just
this and you turn like a leaf
in fall contemplative;

it is, this walking motion,
the birth of thought
its pod opening like last year’s

milkweed, its heart-shaped seeds
suspended beneath the wisp
of white sail as they float

forth. All night long
on the modified Chinese sedan
that is your bed, its

rattan hand holding you up,
you dream and the small
night animals in this patch

of borrowed woodland
say that you sleep
and awaken everywhere

at home.

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Afloat at the Theater

…even as the eagle drives her young at last from the neighborhood of her eyrie, — for their own good, since there is not food enough there for all…Thoreau, Journal, 3/22/61

As we draw near these duck-broods, a conversational cluck-talk suddenly morphs into squawking concern – every duck’s talking at once, and they have begun to hurry this way and that. Are we cause? In our three small boats do we appear to be duck-doom? Ah, no…something else is near.

Also amply fed in this season of plenty, an eagle wheels above the now-panicked covey of ducks, who – it must be said – have had a prolific breeding season. There may be 10 adult ducks in this flotilla 50 or so, and seconds ago one of them has set up the alarm, but now much of the cacophony rises from fuzzy brown ducklings, who seem suddenly to have adopted the random movements of a moth when a bat flies near. The orderly little files of ducks that had been paddling serenely out of our boats’ path have become a hurried scatter of flurried (flightless) wings and webbed feet scratching for water-traction.

The eagle, some twenty feet off the deck, nears, and wherever it veers, 20 ducks dive. Little explosions of spray show where they’ve gone under; their disappearances are audible, like so many small stones raining down. Now, the eagle flares wings, then drops, talons extended, splashing down like an off-kilter parachute, perhaps right atop one of the swimming brown streaks. But it is a mostly graceless attempt, followed by a labored rowing of wings on the water to get – finally, with empty claws – airborne again. All this work, the eagle’s affect seems to say. But once soaring again, the bird’s menace returns, eliciting more squawked protest and more darting in all directions.


After a minute of circling, the eagle appears to tire and wings off to perch in a white pine hundreds of yards away; once there, he vanishes from our sight, and we look back to the ducks, who have begun to gather again into their usual softly chuckling conversations. Then – ALARUM! a gabble of cluck-squawks! Who spotted the eagle is unclear, but well before he arrives to search again in circles for a slow duck, fowl consternation rises and the webbed feet flurry. There must be a lookout duck in the group; does every covey have its lookout? More little geysers of spray as they dive – it is as if they have all drilled for this moment, though they also pop back up quickly enough to suggest that a forward-looking eagle should be able to nab one as he or she emerges. But no, there’s no more awkward eagle-diving, only circling, which goes on for another long minute before its time for another pine rest.

And then, a minute or so later, the eagle leaves, flying upcoast for, who knows? – dumber ducks, slow fish, perhaps an attempt to shakedown a more efficient osprey, who, unlike our eagle, dives often and comes up with food sometimes.

But for three minutes we have been admitted to an avian theater with three, floating front-row seats.

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Note: I’ve posted this piece once before, on July 4th of last year, and so a second posting makes a bit of a tradition of it. Happy dependence day!

Two years, two months, two days.
Henry Thoreau was wary of symbols

thoughts and things that go two
by two into the ark of the mind.

And when he took time off, absconded
with it to the pond on July 4th,

1845, he scoffed at those who saw
declaration of independence, in truth

he might have said, I am more
dependent than ever, on this pond

on this earth, on these feet, not
to mention the sky that shines

in the water, a medium really
for seeing up and down, for

seeing two ways at once, a unity
upon which I row my boat and

in which I bathe every day.

Morning water at Walden

Morning water at Walden


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But For…

I sit in my boat on Walden, playing the flute this evening and see the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon traveling over the bottom, which is strewn with the wrecks of the forest, and feel that nothing but the wildest imagination can conceive of the manner of life we are living. Thoreau, Journal, 5/27/41

But for a few mosquitoes, these evening hours are the year’s most inviting. Even midnight reminds that this is the season of light; the night sky never wears the tight-fitting wool cap of winter – it is always some wash of gray. The old day filters up still into the western sky until, taking over, the new day promises from the east.

If I lived by a pond, I would be out on it in these hours. Which tend also to be wind-quiet ones. Still, the nearby coves of sea will do, and some evenings, I go there. Whatever has blown through during the day (fronts warm or cold) to stir the leaves and waves dissipates as the sun slips down, and the water goes glassy. Now the only wavelets are those of the vee that trails me wherever I go, announcing my passage, pointing to my presence, predicting my way.


Then, a little offshore, I stow my paddle and float only.

Even the mosquitoes seem entranced. They circle lethargically; perhaps, after a long day of battling winds and biting warm-blooded water-goers, they are sated. I may may have the same appeal as a third dessert. I wave them away half-heartedly; they fly likewise. And then whatever it is that tethers me to the everyday disappears.

The tide ebbs and I float out under a sky shot with light. I am reminded of a friend who likes to take a rowboat out into the middle of a lake and then lie down and watch the sky until the boat’s bumping on some shoreline tells him to raise his head and see where he is. While the boat drifts the mind goes free. But for the shore…


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Blood for the Thrush

The wood thrush’s is no opera music; it is not so much the composition as the strain, the tone, — cool bars of melody from the atmospheres of everlasting morning or evening. It is the quality of sound not the sequence. Thoreau, Journal, 7/5/52


The wood thrush was said to be Henry Thoreau’s favorite bird – he called it “the finest songster in the grove” – and its dependency on deep woods mimics his nicely. Whenever I hear a thrush, I know that I’ve made my way to the woods-world, to a fullness of forest; I am beyond the margin. Here then is one such walk.

Blood for the Thrush

Morning walk and
the sanguinaries gather
as if I were an offering; still,
I figure a thimbleful’s
fair trade for this liquid
trill, and I give
to those I miss
with my swinging cap
equivalent to a horse’s tail
in its constancy and futility.
In deep, I reach
a place where four songs
overlap, a rippling
call-and-response throughout
these woods that some call home.

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Living Space

Another pondside that brought on contemplation...and painting - Monet's.

Another pondside that brought on contemplation…and painting – Monet’s.

As we near solstice I find myself returning often in mind to the Walden image of summer-Henry “rapt in revery” in the doorway of his pondside house.

what square-footing did he need
in the world, living little
indoors, large
outside – anachronism even
as a young man,
another way of saying
timeless which some
see as eternal – lair
fitting nicely the proportions
of his human animal
five foot six and
let’s say 140 pounds
there he is “rapt”
in his doorway on
his limen “in revery.”

It’s deep summer, nothing
lasts; he knows autumn
tints are on the way,
the tubercular seed will
flower and drop, the
scarlet oak will hold its
red a long time,
but today he is exactly
between worlds, so
at home that even the birds
flit “noiselessly through
the house,” suspended
above its rectangular

“I grew in these seasons
like corn in the night,”
he will write
effectively closing
the loop of a day,
encircling a lifetime,
squaring its effect
again and again.
It ripples out still,
reaching me in my slat
of sun by an open window
these 161 summers later.



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A Spruce House Made in the Rain

“But give me a spruce house made in the rain.” Thoreau in an 11/4/60 letter to H.G.O. Blake.

When he wrote these words, Henry Thoreau was thinking back to his summer trip to the White Mountains, and he was musing about, for him, a usual annoyance:

several nuisances that make traveling there-abouts unpleasant…The chief of these was the mt houses. I might have supposed that the main attraction of that region, even to citizens, lay in its wildness and unlikeness to the city, & yet they make it as much like the city as they can afford to. I heard that the Crawford House was lighted with gas & had a large saloon, with its band for music, for dancing.

I go to these same mountains later today, aiming for a mix of research and rambling. And a glance at the forecast says I may see some rain; on high there’s been some June snow and ice, a brief refresher for the last scraps of winter shaded still in high crevices. Remnant winter may suggest that I stay low.

Looking up

Looking up

What I most need to remember, even as I slip on the straps of the little settlement of my pack, is that I am going to a “spruce house,” not a “mt house,” some little replica of what I already know perched on a high slope. In the White Mountains, many of the “mt houses” of Thoreau’s time are gone, though their foundation stones still form rectangles on top of Lafayette and Moosilauke, for example. And Mt Washington remains a “mt house” outpost in the sky, with buildings old and new. But other peaks feature mostly water- and wind-worn stone and stunted spruce.

Atop Moosilauke

Atop Moosilauke

There is, however, new encroachment – for many who walk to these summits the “mt house” now takes the form of a mt screen, carrying in it news of the valley; on a screen, “they make it as much like the city as they can afford to.” And now, even on mountain summits, I often see people in the familiar screen-hunch so common along our sidewalks and cafes of our cities. We seem ever more reluctant to go to the “unlikeness to the city,” to leave it behind.

Why is that?

If a band plays on up there, its music should be the wind in the trees and across the rocks. And I would have a different kind of dancing in a spruce house.

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Solar Stuff

While I’ve not had a chance to visit the new solar array at Thoreau Farm, I have seen pictures and gotten notice via the mail. At the same time, even at this relatively lofty latitude in Maine, I’ve been watching nearby houses take on panels, angled, of course, just so to catch the southwestern arc our sun takes. And last year, nearby Bowdoin College completed a solar installation that covers the huge tundra of roof above their field house and hockey rink.

Thoreau Farm Solar

Thoreau Farm Solar

All of this in a state that suffers one of the country’s most regressive governors, and one of the few politicians who might be capable – sadly – matching D Trump mouth for mouth.

Imagine what might happen with a little political light, will and encouragement.

For now, however, I desist with this line of thought and return to panels facing the sun. And, when I turn that way and angle my face likewise and close my eyes, I am reminded of Henry Thoreau sitting for the sunny morning in his Walden doorway “rapt in revery,” and I am reminded also of his meditation on direction for a walk in “Walking”:

When I go out of my house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to instinct to decide for me, I find…that I finally and inevitably settle southwest…My needle is slow to settle…and does not always point southwest, but it always settles between west and southwest. The future lies that way to me…

Always sun aware, Henry Thoreau saw its direction as the way of progress, the way to what’s next. And Thoreau realized (favorite Henry verb) that the project of the day was not to make America great again, but to realize the land’s and its peoples’ potential by going forward. He points the way at Walden’s end:

I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Thoreau Farm’s solar panels, open like pages to the sun, join with thousands of other new panels/pages in pointing the way forward, in turning light into a better life.

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Mowing the Lawn – At a Cost

By Corinne H. Smith

“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau, Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”

The front yard HAD to be mowed. I had cut the whole back yard a few days earlier. But with all of the rain we had gotten, the grass just kept on growing. Another storm front was on its way, and I had just a small window of time after work before the raindrops were sure to fall. I hurried home, filled the mower’s gas-tank, and yanked on the cord. Since the landlord had recently changed the spark plug and the air filter, the machine roared right up. It practically carried me along with it.

Usually I enjoy the act of mowing. I get a chance to take a closer look at nature. Most of my lawn isn’t grass, of course. The violets, clover, wild strawberries, creeping Charlie, oxalis, and black medic far outnumber any blades of grass. But isn’t diversity good? And from the street, who can tell? It’s all greenery. I think the variety is fun to see. And the bunnies, birds, and squirrels seem to appreciate it a lot, too.

But today I was driving angry, so to speak. The world was too much with me. I was turning thoughts around in my head: mostly from posts I had seen online, and mostly geared toward our tangled political scene. I should know enough to ignore such stuff. But today it had overwhelmed me. I was furious. I marched up and down my rows with determination, chewing on every little political exchange I had seen and participated in, in recent days. I wasn’t enjoying my mowing at all. Truth be told, I wasn’t even there.


In the clover

In the clover

I swung around again to the patch of clover next to the sidewalk. Abruptly, I stopped; there was a big bumblebee scurrying among the flowers. I paused, waiting for him to finish his good work. I brake for all animals. Except that it seemed to be taking him a long time to attend to these flowers, and I quickly realized that he wasn’t flying from one bloom to the next. He was tiptoeing haphazardly around their stems. I bent down to take a closer look, still with my grip on the mower handle. In the next instant, I saw that only one of his wings, the left one, was buzzing. The right one stood still, and was cocked at an odd angle. It looked as if he’d gotten hurt somehow. Poor guy. And then the true horror dawned on me. It was my fault. I had run over him in the last pass-through. I hadn’t even seen him then. How could I have been so careless?

The bee

The bee


“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I chanted to the bee. Darn it. I couldn’t do anything to fix this situation. A bee that can’t fly is doomed. And it was all my fault. Still, I had to finish the yard work. A pre-storm breeze had begun to blow, and the sky was growing dark. I mowed around the clover and apologized to the bee every time I came close. How could I have done such a terrible thing?

If you know me or read my posts here, you know that I’m an animal lover. I freely let spiders live in all corners of the house. ( I once relocated a misled mouse from the kitchen to the basement of Thoreau Farm ( I do my best to do no harm to my fellow planet-dwellers. And yet this time, I had let outside events play hard enough on my emotions that I hadn’t been paying attention to what I was doing. If this was a key lesson from the Universe, it was a particularly difficult one to bear.

“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?” ~ Thoreau, “Walking”

Ah, you’re right, Henry. I was out of my senses. I hadn’t seen what was right in front of me. I let the ridiculousness of current events distract me. I should have known better.

After I finished the job and locked the mower away, I returned to the scene of distracted crime. The bee was still staggering around the clover patch. Sometimes he took a tumble and did a somersault or two because of the uncertain footing. I had grounded a pilot who barely knew how to walk. I had sentenced him to certain death. And still I kept apologizing, as if it would do him any good: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Every few hours I checked on him, as if in hope that he would shake off the experience and would suddenly take off and say goodbye. But we both knew this wouldn’t happen.

He made it through the light rain overnight, and he made it into another day. The last time I saw the bumblebee, he was sitting quite still on top of the violets. The broken right wing was now gone entirely. I wasn’t sure if he was even alive. But when I broke off a clover flower and put it down gently near him, he flinched a little bit. No, I’m not going to hurt you again, Bee. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He waved one of his antennas at me, or at the flower. By the following day, he was no where to be found.

Last of Bee

Last of Bee

Days later, I admitted my awful deed to a friend. At first, he made light of the story. But when he saw how serious and upset I was about hurting the bee, he said quietly, “Did you do it in malice and with an intent to ill will?”

“No, of course not,” I said.

“Then you need to forgive yourself, as the bee has already forgiven you.”

Wow. Thank you, wise friend.

The grass continues to grow. Soon I have to mow again. But this time, I’ll pay closer attention. I’ll leave the outside world to deal with itself and concentrate on my own little part of it. I would fain return to my senses, and to the person I know myself to be.

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