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”
I’ve spent much of my summer nearly past amid the trees; I became more mindful of this during a recent paddle on wide open waters near Maine’s Isle au Haut (pronounced locally, Isle a Ho). Most of the islands in this area are dense with forest, mostly spruce, birch and few white pines, and, when I pulled in for a rest stop on Wreck Island, I stepped from under a wide ocean sky into a close, lichen-papered room of dark woods. Pale green bearded-moss filtering the light hung from the trees; my eyes had to jump open a number of f-stops to see. A thin trail wound off to the right, and, for a minute, I watched it expectantly. Wreck Island is, however, now inhabited only by deer and assorted smaller animals, and so I was really peering down a trail and waiting for the past to arrive.
That past, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, saw very different islands, first claimed and then inhabited by a mix of farmers and fishermen and soon shorn of their trees, which went for fields, buildings, boats, heat and, as the 1800s wore on, pulp. Photos from the 1880s are recognizable only in the shapes of the islands. Such shearing of woodlands was, of course, familiar to Henry Thoreau in Concord also – that long-farmed landscape was cut close, which undoubtedly helped Thoreau treasure those patches of swamp and woodland left untouched. But to find deep woods, Thoreau had to travel to interior Maine.
As I paddled amid the islands, I thought about the microcosm of regeneration each represents. All but a few have full heads of forest-hair, and the interiors of those forested islands have reverted to the timeless suggestion and mystery of woodlands. On one tiny island (Potato), the heart-shaped hoof prints of deer pointed to who lived there now. The regreening of New England has been much noted (over 80% of our region is now forested), and, as the trees and forest thicken annually, woody anomalies keep reappearing too – a mountain lion in Connecticut (DNA sampling said he’d migrated from the Dakotas), a moose on Rte 128, bears in backyard trees. Now, ironically, the most shorn of landscapes can be found in the vast clear cuts of Maine’s interior, where only narrow “beauty strips” of trees separate those who paddle the rivers from the dazed, cut-over square miles of former woods.
Thoreau liked to count the rings of trees and learn the outlines of their stories during the good years and the hard. Counting the trees of this summer outlines a story of regeneration that Henry Thoreau would have nodded at and liked.
By Corinne H. Smith
Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:
“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)
“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)
“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)
“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)
“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)
“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)
Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”
I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.
The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.
The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.
The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.
I know the feeling.
The days of this September week have acted on me as they may have acted on Henry in 1855. His journal covers the month’s first 12 days in under a page, ending with two haiku-like entries (I have reshaped them to suggest the form, and yes, the syllable-count stricture is relaxed):
Sept. 11 loudly the
cricket mole creaks by mid-afternoon
muskrat houses begun
Sept. 12 a few
clams freshly eaten some
Perhaps the slanting light and the etched clarity of each branch and leaf kept Henry from more usual, detailed writing; perhaps he felt summoned outside, even as the year began to contract. Surely, it’s felt that way for me. Summer’s expansive and eternal mornings have been replaced by sharp, cool air and the sense that something stirs to my north. Every minute outside seems precious and won; the clear air has said, Look and see.
And I have been rewarded:
Bluest sky tall spruce
a single perch for survey
two bald eagles vie
Pebbles crunch underfoot
laughter peals from the white birch
Sea to horizon
ripples shot with sun flight
all day to paddle
What square-footing did he have
in the world, living little
outside – anachronism
another way of saying
timeless which some
see as eternal – lair
fitting nicely the proportions
of his human animal
five foot seven 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
flare and droop 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 150
“I grew in these seasons
like corn in the night,”
he will write
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
far from the pond
these 160 summers later.
Sitting the Morning
Deep summer. Something seasonal stirs: light slants, a leaf turns, cool pools. And yet…on this morning, I lose sight of oncoming change and sit by the window in a shaft of sunlight; the day gains immediacy.
I am reminded of Thoreau’s stoop-sitting morning at the start of “Sounds” in Walden:
I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and the hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night and they were far better than any work of hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.
We are, I think, born to grow on the edge, or in the margins, whether of seasons or in the doorways of the various constructions we make. Thoreau sited his tiny house at Concord’s margin, and, on the morning described above, set himself in between the tiny house’s interior and Nature’s ‘big house.’ The birds recognized the seamless presence of the house as they equally “[sing] around or [flit] noiselessly through” it. Not so easily done by a human, however, and Thoreau must be “rapt in revery” to “[grow] in those seasons like corn in the night.”
By this window, the jay squalls; the cardinal whistles; I sit. May your deep summer contain like moments.
By Corinne H. Smith
Ask anyone who knows me. They’ll confirm that my main priorities in life do not include housekeeping tasks.
So I wasn’t completely surprised one morning when a spider appeared in front of me as I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes. (Yes, every few days I wash the dishes by necessity, by hand.) She had dropped down from her nearly-invisible web at the place where the wall meets the ceiling. She just hung there, by a thread in mid-air, right at my eye level. “Hello,” I said. “How are you? Is your name Charlotte?” I laughed at my joke. If she responded, it was in a way or in a language that I could not decipher.
What could I do? My hands were wet and soapy. I didn’t want to hurt this spider. But I did want to discourage her from landing on the counter, where she could get accidentally crushed. So I came up with the idea of disturbing her lightly by blowing in her direction. My breath made her sway toward the window. After a few seconds, she got the message. She hoisted herself back up to her ceiling perch. Quite quickly, too. Spiders are amazing creatures.
A few days later, when I was washing the dishes again, Charlotte came down to visit me a second time. Now I gave her a good look as I talked to her. I saw that her two front legs were longer than the other six, and they looked as if they had little hooks on them. She was so tiny, though. She was smaller than the fingernail on my pinkie. When I blew in her direction this time, she dropped down to the edge of the cat’s water dish. Oh no! Had I drowned her? Evidently not. She sat there for a bit, then once again hoisted herself back up to the ceiling. I was still amazed.
The third time she dropped down in front of me, I decided to get an even closer look at her. I wanted to figure out what kind of spider she was. So I wiped off my hands and went into another room to grab a magnifying glass. When I came back to the kitchen, Charlotte was close to the counter. I moved the magnifier gently over her and leaned down to get a peek. Well, she was having none of this. She must have seen my action as an intrusion of privacy or even an outright threat. She nearly flew back up to the ceiling, seemingly in a rage. I was disappointed, but I understood. I put the magnifier away and finished washing the dishes. Every once in a while, I looked up and spied Charlotte sitting in her web near the clock. I sensed anger and a feeling of betrayal. I apologized to her for my arrogance.
As I thought about these encounters, I wondered if Henry Thoreau had any similar meetings with spiders. I searched his journal entries and didn’t find any appropriate passages. Then I realized the obvious secondary connection: E. B. White, renowned essayist and author of the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” had been a devoted fan of Henry Thoreau. Perhaps it was this inclination toward a close inspection of nature that drew him to study and to write about a spider in “Charlotte’s Web” and a mouse in “Stuart Little.” I decided to follow this diversion and briefly revisit White’s Thoreauvianism.
Elwyn Brooks “Andy” White (1899-1985) first read “Walden” as an undergraduate at Cornell University. It became his favorite book and the one that affected him the most. In an essay simply called “Walden,” White shared the details of his pilgrimage to Concord in June 1939. He drove into town on MA Route 62. (MA Route 2 had yet to be built.) He walked to the pond via Main Street, Thoreau Street, and MA Route 126. He passed the Golden Pheasant lunchroom and the Walden Breezes trailer park before heading downhill for the shoreline. He spoke of bathers, boaters, and the litter lying around the park. Thoreau’s house site was marked, but not as exactly as it is today. And White didn’t think very highly of the cairn, even though he found a rock to add to it. “It is a rather ugly little heap of stones, Henry,” he wrote. He walked back to the town center along the railroad. It’s difficult to know if he considered the trip worthwhile or disappointing. His total bill for staying one night and eating at Concord’s Colonial Inn came to $4.25.
In 1954, the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Walden” stirred White to write an essay that was both a tribute and a literary analysis. It was published variously with the title “A Slight Sound at Evening” or “Walden 1954.” Nearly every sentence glows with admiration. Even White found it difficult at times to be so enamored with Henry and with “Walden.” “To admire the book is, in fact, something of an embarrassment,” he wrote, “for the mass of men have an indistinct notion that its author was sort of a Nature boy.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I enjoyed reading E. B. White’s essays, but I had to return to the present day. Naturalists will tell you that you’re never more than three feet away from a spider. Our Charlotte has been busy in the past weeks, catching flies and other tiny insects in her ever-enlarging web. She finally dropped down to see me yesterday when I was washing the dishes yet again. This time, it was just a chance for us to say hello to each other. Then she pulled herself back up to the ceiling. I think we’re on good footing again.
Charlotte provides a nice little pest-removal service for us. Maybe I don’t need to know exactly what kind of spider she is. She’s a helpful and social one. And thanks to fellow Thoreauvian E. B. White, I can at least give her a first name.
by Debbie Bier
Do you know where your food has been the last 10,000 years?
I don’t mean where it was grown or how it traveled to your plate – which are worthy questions, certainly – but its history over the course of centuries or millennia. In what part of the world did it originate? Was it bred for specific characteristics? How were its genetics preserved to grow and end up on your plate today? This is something I ponder often as I tend the kitchen garden at Thoreau Farm – in fact, it’s become a favorite moving meditation over the years.
All this garden’s plant varieties were carefully chosen, known or reasonably assumed to have been in New England by 1878. That’s the year the house was moved to its current location, and the date we therefore chose for our exterior restoration. Mostly, the roughly 70 varieties we are growing this year go back much further than 1878. Some decades earlier, others centuries… some even stretch far back into human prehistory. As we take this photographic tour around the mid-summer 2014 kitchen garden, I’d like to point out some of these plants and their history. I hope next time you shop, garden, prepare, or sit down to eat a meal, you’ll find yourself curious about the larger history of what you’re eating. And since this goes back to the miracle of the seed, “…be prepared to expect wonders!”
The Early Purple Vienna Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea) I’m clutching in the photo here is a pre-1860 variety grown for its tender, delicious, swollen, bulb-like stem and copious, beautiful leaves. There is also a green Vienna available from the same era, but I think: why grow a green plant when a purple one is available? Kohlrabi is an unusual looking plant that evokes silliness among our visitors – which is why everyone is laughing in the photo.
The Egyptian Walking Onion (Allium proliferum) is one of our most marveled-at plants by visitors. This unusual 1850s variety is not Egyptian in the least – but it sure does walk! These are perennial scallions that reproduce by setting a top cluster of bulbils, which look exactly like tiny red onions. The weight of the developing cluster causes its up-to-4’-long stalk to fall over and touch the ground. At that point, the bulbils put down roots and sprout leaves. You can see the cluster in my hand here is already sprouting to the tune of 6” long leaves! They are amazingly hardy and come up early in the spring, quickly supplying us with copious quantities of scallions right up until winter’s heavy snow covers them. Visitors often use the word “alien” to describe it.
An 1845 corn variety first grown in Virginia, Bloody Butcher (Zea mays), has distinctive, long root-like structures that are sent down from the first and sometimes second nodes along its stalk. Feel free to refer to them as we do: corn toes. It was bred by crossing Native American corn with the European settlers’ seed. At Thoreau Farm, we grow it for grinding, though it was a favorite “moonshine” corn in its day. This corn is deep maroon when mature, hence the “blood” in its name. It grinds up purple and is a dark gray-blue when baked into cornbread.
We grow more than one dark red plant that uses “blood” in its name, another being the 1840’s Bull’s Blood beet (Beta vulgaris) with its intensely dark red-purple (almost chocolate brown) leaves. More typically grown for its foliage for use in salad mixes, it does have a lovely small beet that reveals white rings running through the crimson when it’s cut. It was so long popular for its leaves that rumor had it that the bulb was inedible – which is nonsense. I love to plant the various beet varieties clustered together, the Bull’s Blood here mixing with the 1820s Golden Beet, and the pre-1811 Early Wonder Top Beet. This year it’s also flanked by an improved version of the 1871 Danver’s Carrot developed in nearby Danvers, MA.
Have you ever wondered exactly where the poppy seeds on your bagel come from? In this photo, we see poppy seeds growing in two stages: a future potential in the open flower of the Breadseed Poppy (Papaver somniferum), and to its left, the still-ripening pod where the seeds are forming. This plant was bred to have none of the natural openings in the pod so the seed wouldn’t be spilled before harvest. That’s some pretty smart and successful breeding!
We grow the Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) to honor the Cherokee who carried this bean over the Trail of Tears, the infamous winter death march from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma (1838-1839) that left 4,000 dead along the way. I chose this bean to connect us to Thoreau’s deep sense of social justice and interest in the native peoples here. The pods are tender and succulent as string beans, though we grow them mostly for their gorgeous shiny black dried beans. Visit the house in early September, and you’ll see the pods will have swollen and turned a dusky purple on their way to full maturity. When cooked, the dried beans are rich and flavorful in ways our typical canned black beans never could be. Heirloom beans are amazingly delicious – that they have rabid devotees is understandable once you taste them. Down with canned, flavorless beans!
When it comes to certain squash and pumpkins, we have to look back millennia to view their history. The “flying saucer” patty pan and the ever-abundant yellow crooknecks (both Curcurbita pepo) are believed to have pre-historic North American origins. Our white patty pan – “White Custard Squash” – was documented in Spain in 1591, where it arrived from the New World. In 1722, it was documented growing in what is now the United States, planted by Colonial settlers.
The pure breeding of squash varieties – which is what makes the characteristics of the parents breed true in their offspring – over millennia boggles my mind. Truth be told: squash of the same species (though different varieties) will cross-pollinate willy-nilly in the garden. To properly save seed, both male and female squash blossoms must to be isolated and then hand-pollinated. (In this photo, the fading pumpkin flowers across the bottom are males with their thin, long stems; the flower hanging downwards at the top is a female with an ovary behind the dying flower that looks just like a miniature pumpkin.) To maintain these varieties for hundreds or thousands of years takes real devotion, and endless generations of hands doing the job correctly, faithfully year after year after year. Thinking about squash varieties that are thousands of years old, I am both astonished and grateful to those long-gone farmers.
In contrast, all of the commercial seed stock from the wonderful delicate squash was ruined a few years ago by improper pollination methods. If it were not for home seed savers who held pure seed and were able to restore it to commercial production, we would no longer have this lovely variety – it would have been lost forever.
Between the super-powered, nutrient-dense goat manure from small local goat herds, and the fantastic seed, much of which we save ourselves and are adapting to perform best in this location, the garden this year is absolutely fantastic! Do visit any time, particularly weekends 11a-4p until October, when you can also tour the inside of the house.
The 2014 Thoreau Farm Kitchen Garden map and the 2014 Thoreau Farm Kitchen Garden planting list are included at the end of this post; they may be copied for reference.
Deborah Bier is a Thoreau Farm Board member. She created and has manages our Kitchen Garden. She is also on the steering committee of the Concord Seed Lending Library, for which Thoreau Farm grows seed and educates the public. www.ConcordSeedLendingLibrary.com
Famously, Henry Thoreau built his house in the woods from “some tall, arrowy white pines” that he cut down “still in their youth.” And, less famously, a page or so later in Walden, he contends, “Before I had done I was more friend than foe of the pine tree…having become better acquainted with it.” Perhaps. I’ve had Thoreau’s experience and passage in mind recently as I’ve felt my own imperative to cut down a pine. Here’s that story.
It’s a mid-afternoon in early August when the white truck with WellTree, the company logo, on it rolls up. It’s a bucket truck, and it’s followed by a bulky-bodied cousin dragging an industrial-sized chipper (think Fargo). Two thirty-something men with orange headphones around their necks step down from the trucks in our driveway and begin to size up a large white pine on the front lawn; I walk out to meet them and redirect them to the pine with four leaders on the fringe of the driveway. A few second pass. “Geeze, Jeff,” one says under his breath. “This time of day?”
Jeff is WellTree’s owner, and a few hours ago, he appeared and wondered if his guys could begin on this tree a day early (One of their two bucket-trucks was in for repair, and they had two bucket jobs for tomorrow). “Sure,” I’d said.
And so his guys have arrived, but the 80-foot tree before and above them is not a mid-afternoon tree. “We were expecting something smaller,” the man, who will turn out to be the sawyer, says. Fifteen minutes later, the bucket truck is nosed up to the pine’s trunk and, headphones tight to his ears, he’s lifting off as the mechanical arm unflexes; he seems to fly up into the tree like an actor carried over stage by invisible wires. Thirty feet up, he fires up his saw and trims a spreading branch at the halfway point; then, he shifts the bucket five feet to his left, leans out with one arm and cuts the rest of the limb; it drops to the driveway with a body sound you feel through your feet. The usual day with its usual decisions goes away.
Feeling agitated and vague, I go inside to work; I can’t sit still. The saw snarls. Then the chipper’s motor adds its chewing bass note. I’m up pacing. I feel like the tree, I think; “well, that’s silly,” I say out loud. I sit again, read a sentence, then reread it, wonder what it’s about, can’t recall. “I feel like the tree,” I say aloud. The saw snarls again. The tree’s day has arrived. I have summoned it.
Taking down this white pine has not been a whimsical decision. We’ve been in our house for 11 years, and early on, noting the pine’s lean toward and over that house, we had some branches trimmed as guard against our regular ice storms. That seemed to suffice. And yes, it dripped pitch steadily on whatever was beneath it, but like all trees, as I swept its needles up every so often, it grew neighborly. Or I grew neighborly. But earlier this summer Ray, the man who helps us with our plants, called our attention to a seam in the trunk’s center; that wet, dark line appeared on both sides, and when you stood next to the trunk, the whole tree leaned over you in the direction of the house. “If this were my house,” said Ray, “I’d have that looked after.” And so, in this era when storms seem to have intensified and a new fungus has nipped at local pines’ needles, we called WellTree to have a look.
To begin with, this pine has four leaders, which any follower will tell you is three too many. I learn that pines growing without the tight neighborliness of other pines tend in this direction; they spread into available sky. But as they reach size all this spreading weight begins to pull the central trunk apart; the seam Ray pointed out is likely sign of the leaders’ branching out.
I look up through our clerestory windows. There’s more light in the sky; I go outside to watch. More limbs fall. The two machines snarl and growl, the smaller feeds the larger. Wood chips fly into the truck’s covered body; each chip is smaller than a thumbnail. I realize that I am sad. And once I’ve said “sad” to myself, as a I lean against our car’s body watching, the feeling takes hold deeply. The bucket moves like a conjurer’s arm. More pieces fall; tons remain upright. This, I realize, is going to take some time.
It’s nighttime. The men and their trucks have left. Two leaders of the pine remain at their full 80 feet. It’s raining lightly. I feel tears seep from my eyes. The sadness feels unalloyed, pure. What have I done? I ask. I want to look away; I can’t.
There is explanation; there is sense to be made: I’ve just retired from a 40-year teaching career and its everyday touch of youth and its fast-growing leaders. We’ve moved 130 miles from the school where we lived. Every day I press a littler farther into a shorter future. But really? That’s maudlin, and there’s as much to celebrate as there is to mourn, more really.
And there isn’t explanation. I’ve run the saw, felled trees, sometimes 10s of them in a day; I’ve burned wood for heat. I’ve lived in End-of-the-road New Hampshire in a wood-heated, or at least warmed, house.
Perhaps, I think, the time it’s taking offers some echo of just how long this pine has been aloft, stretching a little each day for the light in the sky, thickening to itself in rings over years. Perhaps it’s because I’ve ordered this, like some near general, and now I must sit in my bunker and watch my orders played out. Perhaps.
On the second morning, it takes longer. The two remaining leaders must be trimmed carefully – they rise over the neighborhood’s wires. And then, bringing their bodies down must happen in alternating ten-foot sections, with the rope tied off to the other leader-trunk. Flakes of sawdust float like a storm-ending flurry of snow.
Whittled now down to 40-foot stalk of pine. With our neighbor, Claude, I’m out watching this final trunk pulled down onto a cross-hatching of its brother stems laid out to protect the lawn some from the final fall. Post-image: after it comes down, and after the trunk is cut into eight-foot lengths, the sawyer is running the hydraulic arm that clasps and lifts each log into the truck’s body; when he raises the section with the seam in it, the log spins, and I can see that the seam goes all the way through the trunk; also, as the log rises a trail of liquid drips steadily from it – too fluid and frequent to be pitch, it must be some watery intermediate: yes, it drips like blood, but it also is some harbinger of rot.
The work order calls for this “low stump” to be left. We’ve said we’ll live with this before deciding what’s next. Now, in the aftermath, I’ve taken a seat there. First I’ve counted the rings, noting the flush years and the lean, saying the numbers aloud to keep from losing my place, then recounting to this: 63. Mild surprise – older, I thought, say in its 80s. The column of air above me where the pine was weighs little, best measured in ounces; the bushes and nearby trees eye the new open space.
Early evening of pine-absence: sunlight punctuated by distant thunder; the light gives way to a faux-dusk. A storm is lumbering in from the north. It breaks: flashed light, immediate thunder, rain that obscures everything beyond the yard – is there room for air amid such water? The backyard pines toss their branches in the furious air; the maples buck up high. I feel washed free.
By Corinne H. Smith
I last led a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill at the end of March. Back then, we had to walk around a few patches of ice, but we still had a terrific time. (See http://thoreaufarm.org/2014/04/a-visit-to-two-boulder-hill/ for the whole story.)
What a difference three and a half months can make! During The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering in mid-July, three of us took the same walk. Well, it can never be the SAME walk. We followed the same general path, and we witnessed the sights and sounds of Summer this time.
Charles and Lucy and I met at Thoreau Farm and began walking north. After we passed the Gaining Grounds fields and the woods behind them, we reached a little-used access road. Here we caught sight of flowers that like to live in these kinds of disturbed areas: the yellow bird’s foot trefoil, yarrow, tiny Deptford pinks, and Queen Anne’s lace. We watched as the smallest butterfly we’d ever seen lighted upon a small dark log. Upon further inspection, we thought that its perch may have been coyote scat. We had indeed approached Wildness pretty quickly.
On this steamy July day, with no clouds in the sky, the sunlight was too strong for us to stand in one place for very long. We walked along the trail and looked around for a shady spot to sit. We ended up just plopping down in the middle of the path, only an arm’s length away from one another. But we all had writing experience, and we quickly got ourselves into the proper frames of mind. We watched, we listened, and we quietly wrote in our journals.
We were surrounded by a dense forest that the wind brought to life. Breezes fluttered through all of the trees and branches above us. Lucy noted later that it sounded as if we were sitting at the edge of a big green ocean, with waves of leaves cooling us off instead of water drops.
After about fifteen minutes, I caught a hint of familiar flute-like tones. No! Was it possible? Had we been discovered by Henry David Thoreau’s favorite bird, the wood thrush?
I waited a few seconds, and the call came again. I was sitting a little closer to Charles, and I whispered to him, “I don’t believe it.” He cocked his ears and listened, and we heard the song again. Charles understood and nodded. He lifted his binoculars to see if he could see the bird. We alerted Lucy, too. Somewhere in the overgrown thicket in front of us, a wood thrush sang its beautiful tidbit song.
Thoreau called the wood thrush “the finest songster of the grove.” He wrote glowingly of the bird and its music. His journal entry for July 5, 1852, puts the thrush on an especially high pedestal, for the length of a full long paragraph. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring,” he said. It was true. The temperature suddenly became more tolerable for us. We listened as the bird came and went: always out of sight, but always sharing its music. I scribbled a rough transcription of the thrush’s jagged but magical melody line:
(You can hear the typical wood thrush song on Cornell’s All About Birds web site at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wood_thrush/id.)
Eventually I glanced at my watch. It was time to start walking back. I told my companions that we had to leave. Charles looked at me and said, “I could stay here all day.” Lucy and I felt the same way. Now THAT’s the sign of a worthwhile nature-watching and writing outing. Reluctantly we got up, brushed ourselves off, stretched our legs, and sauntered back to Thoreau Farm.
Charles was inspired to write a poem about our forest visitor.
Sitting in woods listening for sounds –
airplanes the winds shifting in the trees
cicada catbird then the faint
silvery voice, “come to me” “come to me”
the winds blow hard tossing treetops
we wait longer then the bird is nigh
“come to me!” yet closer “come to me!!”
I aim binoculars cannot see him
then silence — only the wind remains
this shy liquid-voiced singer
is the soul of the listening forest
~ Charles T. Phillips
This was indeed a day that the three of us will remember. And all we really did was take a walk in the woods.
One of the writing projects I’ve taken on is a biannual column about mountain accidents and searches and rescues for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Appalachia Journal. The column’s primary purpose is educational – if we read the stories of those who fall or go astray in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we may become wiser walkers. At least that’s the theory. The column’s readership also knows the lure of disaster stories. Along with these stories of misfortune and perseverance in the backcountry, I offer analysis of what went wrong (and right) in each instance. And I hear from readers who like to point out their own takeaways and share their own stories.
So during the warm ease of summer’s heartland, I take some days to revisit mountain tales accrued during the winter past; the column then will appear at the outset of winter next, and, theoretically, its readership then goes wiser into the winter hills.
The other day, as the rain pattered companionably on the roof, I was mulling over an incident, and, at the same time, wondering what familiar walk I would take later when the rain let up. This wondering brought Henry Thoreau to mind. Famously and early in “Walking,” Thoreau sets his criteria for a walk: “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”
It is, of course, an “extreme statement,” and in its extremity designed to jar us from the complacency of routine – a little work, a little walk…ho hum…what’s for dinner?
The incident I was contemplating and then writing up was about a college student, who during finals week, went to the mountains, purportedly to clear his head. Here’s the summary, written in the column’s reportorial style:
On December 12th at 3:00 a.m., New Hampshire Fish and Game received a call about a missing hiker in the Franconia Notch area. David F., a Lyndon State College student, had left school to go hiking and climbing in that area the day before. He was reported to be well equipped. David had also given his roommate his intended route, and Fish and Game officers decided that he might simply be delayed and to give him time to hike out on his own. Morning temperatures were very cold (on Mount Washington at 5:17 a.m. it was -15 with the wind registering 73 mph; a windchill advisory was in effect) and there was still no sign of David F., so Fish and Game began to organize a search, which would necessarily be broad and people intensive. At 12:30 p.m., as the search was getting under way, Fish and Game learned that hikers on the Falling Waters trail had come across David not far from the summit of Little Haystack.
Fish and Game believed that David F.’s condition merited an airlift off the ridge by a New Hampshire National Guard helicopter. He was treated for mild hypothermia at a local hospital. In an interview with Fish and Game, David said that he had begun his climb on the Falling Waters trail at 9:00 a.m. on the 11th, diverging later to climb an off-trail drainage called Lincoln’s Throat; eventually he became lost, spent the night in his sleeping bag and wrapped in a space blanket and tarp, then found his way to the Falling Waters trail in the morning. When found, David F. was without his pack and gear, saying he must have lost them that morning.
Such a report sets off head-wagging among the mountain cognoscenti, as it should – conventions violated, personal ability overestimated, etc. But most of us recognize too the need to slip the trap – whether it is a spate of final exams, a daily job or the overly-civil layerings of language over experience – and go free. “Westward I go free,” wrote Thoreau later in his essay, and it takes only a slight change to say, upward I go free. I remember that, even as I point out a student’s errors in pursuit of that freedom.
By Ashton Nichols
Yesterday morning, while I was pushing my granddaughter Verona on the swing in one of our large cedar trees in front of Creekside, I noticed a sudden flash of yellow against the striated brown bark of the tree’s massive trunk. As I drew closer, I could see that it was two Imperial Moths (Eacles imperialis), beautiful members of the silk moth family, the group that produces the largest moths found in North America. These two were clearly mating, joined at the hind-parts and perfectly still, presumably waiting in their nocturnal way, at least for the sun to go down.
Moths can take a full 12 hours to mate. The male’s goal is to pass a spermatophore into the female’s body, so that she can then fertilize her eggs. He has located her by sensing her pheromones in the nearby air and then flying toward the source until he locates his partner. Once together, the moths unite by backing up, abdomen to abdomen until they are firmly joined. Then the male clasps the female with small, finger-like appendages– “claspers”–so that the two can remain connected, even if they have to move from one spot to another during their prolonged “romance.” Research indicates that a mating pair like this, hooked together and unable to separate until their work is done, are especially liable to predation, often by raccoons and other small forest mammals.
These two insects that Verona and I watched today were gorgeous and large examples, a full five inches across from wingtip to wingtip, the female slightly larger than the male. Their bright yellow wings were patterned with a brown that almost shaded to purple; they had a thumb-thick and sharply segmented abdomen, and a wide, furry head and face. The female has a unique–if invisible–anatomical feature, her “bursa copulatrix (literally, organ for “exchange coupling),” where she will store the spermatophore that she receives from the male. This tiny packet of his genetic material also contains nutrient materials to keep the fertilized eggs supplied with “food” in her body, not unlike the way an egg’s yolk and white support the growing chick.
Here is how complicated and technical the entomologist’s description of the Imperial Moth can get: “Both sexes have round, purplish to reddish-brown reniform and subreniform spots on the forewing, the center of each spot filled with gray; as well as a similar discal spot on the hind wing” (this drawn from the Massachusetts “Natural heritage Endangered Species Program”). The last century has seen a dramatic decline in species range and numbers so that now, in Massachusetts for example, the moth–which once covered the state–is only found on Martha’s Vineyard Island and occasionally on the nearby mainland. In our part of Pennsylvania the decline is less pronounced, but the Mason-Dixon line seems to be the dividing line: Imperials in Maryland and south tend to be doing much better than their northern kin.
So there we were, on a warm July afternoon with a single species of declining moth, bringing knowledge to me and wonder to my wide-eyed, three-year-old grandchild. “What are those two moths doing, Baba,” Verona said, with her eyes still wide and staring. “Well, my little girl, they are resting . . . um, ah, ” pause, think, speak: “and they are starting to make babies for the next generation . . . I, uh . . . I mean for their next family of beautiful moths.” “They ARE beautiful, Baba,” Verona said as we turned to come into Creekside to get the camera.
This morning I returned and the pair was gone: he to feed and hopefully to survive a few more months until winter, she off to lay her fertilized eggs and begin their remarkable metamorphic moth lifecycle again.
By Corinne H. Smith
The silent Memorial Walk around Walden Pond is a tradition during The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering. We meet at the house replica near the parking lot at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. When we introduce ourselves, we also share the names of people we are dedicating the walk to. The whole group walks in memory of Henry David Thoreau and scholars Walter Harding and Bradley P. Dean. Individuals may choose also to walk for family members, friends, and mentors who have gone on before. I always dedicate my participation to two of my mentors, Thoreau scholar Edmund Schofield and singer-songwriter and environmentalist John Denver. I wear Ed’s tan corduroy hat during the walk, as he often did whenever he spent time exploring Walden Woods.
On this July 12th, about a dozen people stand in our circle. We sing a verse of Happy Birthday in Henry’s honor. Then, when the introductions come around to Jeff Hinich of Ontario, he stretches out his arms as if to embrace the group and says, “I dedicate this walk to all of Henry’s children!” We laugh. We know that Henry and his siblings never married and that no direct descendants of their family exist. And yet: isn’t Jeff right? Aren’t we all Henry’s children? Didn’t he father good books and essays and opinions that in turn brought together followers like us?
I think on this satisfying idea as we walk single file across the road and down to the level of the pond. We edge past a handful of long-distance swimmers preparing to work on their pond-laps. A few are already in the water. Now we turn left in order to round the pond clockwise. As the first one in the line, I often get to see a few things the others don’t. Chipmunks squeak and scurry in front of me, almost underfoot. Robins are in abundance today, too. I play a game of tag with one bird for more than ten yards. It bobs ahead of me, stops to let me catch up, then bobs ahead some more. Finally it realizes that I am not going to stray from the path that we’ve both been using. It flies up into a small tree and watches our group pass from this vantage point. I try not to laugh out loud.
Otherwise, it’s a pretty calm scene at Walden Pond. Some fishermen quietly cast lines from boats or from the shore. Even the train tracks lie idle. The MBTA continues to make improvements and repairs on this section and has suspended weekend service for most of the rest of 2014. So we wait for the train that doesn’t come, then continue on to the site where Henry’s house once stood. Here we fan out and take our time, thinking about Henry and our loved ones, too. Some take a few seconds to stand in his doorway and look down to the cove.
For most of the fourteen Memorial Walks that I’ve been on, I’ve seen white Indian pipes growing in select spots around the cairn and outside of the house markers. This time, there are none. I tiptoe to all of the places where I’ve seen them in the past, and no white shoots are beginning to lift the leaf litter. The weather conditions must have been different this year. Maybe the heat or moisture levels haven’t been right. Maybe the unique curved heads will pop up later in the season, when they can amaze other visitors. Or maybe they were quite early, and I missed them. I feel disappointment at their absence.
What I notice instead is all of the small pine trees rising here. Many aren’t even as big as the one Charlie Brown places a single red ornament on each Christmas. One is certainly less than four inches tall. Yes, I’ve seen seedlings before. But either there are more of them today, or I’m somehow extra aware of them now. Then it dawns on me. These little guys are Henry’s children, too! He once planted hundreds of white pines in this area. Granted, we have no easy way of proving that these specific saplings came from his specific plantings. But in the grand and symbolic scheme of the Walden Woods ecosystem, we can call them descendants. More of Henry’s children. And at this thought, I smile again.
We saunter back to the parking lot. Now, families loaded down with beach paraphernalia hurry toward us, eager to stake out some sand and sun for the rest of the day. Some of them may be Henry’s children, too: if not now, then perhaps at some future moment. How many children does Henry David Thoreau have? It’s an innocent enough question that’s hard to answer. But on this particular morning, and only at Walden Pond, I count at least a dozen people and hundreds of seedling pines. Many more are sure to surface in the years to come.
It’s been nearly a year since I stepped out the door, turned left at the driveway’s end and walked off into these New Hampshire hills. But even as the town road bears right uphill and I go straight along this spur’s tire-flattened gravel, the images arrive: in them I (or we) are setting out, often with the Oregon Ridge in mind. It could be blueberries on the ledges; it could be relief from the heat; it could be hope of another moose antler; it could be solitude. Any of these pretexts will do.
Fifty years seems a long stretch, unless, as I have, you have been reading a book set in geological time; then, fifty years seems a mere intake of breath, a shallow one at that. I have a mind habituated to the ephemeral, the thought equivalent of a day moth, whose 24-hour life cycle seems hurried, but usual. But on this return to the ridges I first walked 55 years ago, I keep making a conscious effort to see the slowest motion of long time and its events. The tilted planes of rock remind of a time when they were not aslant. And the pluton of Cardigan itself, a resistant dome of weathered rock, reminds of all the companion rock and soil washed away over millennia to reveal this mountain.
On my way up the aptly named Skyland Ridge, I drop into a small drainage, where a clear brook burbles its little July song. The climb up the bank on the east side is reach-out-and-touch-the-ground-before-your-face sharp, and, as a I look back down some 50 nearly sheer feet to the brook, I take in the cutting it has done… is doing, even as I watch its little summer flow, taking down this mountain a few molecules at a time.
Usually the shift to this sort of deep time meditation is too great a leap, and I return soon to looking at leaves, musing about mosses and listening to birds sing their territories. The nearby drumming of a pileated woodpecker reminds of time’s more immediate beat, as do the fist-sized holes in a trailside tree. But on this day a recurring perception keeps nudging me back to longer spans of time, and, after a while, I realize that I am also looking at changes in the land over the 55 years. In particular, I keep seeing the slow crawl of trees as they recolonize and reclaim the bare rock.
Cardigan’s brother peak is named, arrestingly, Firescrew. As a boy, I simply noted that it topped out just above 3000 feet and hurried toward it summit, repeatedly. Later, I began to wonder about its odd name, and I found it derived from a massive forest fire in 1855; its heat was so intense that it burned with a swirl (or screw) of flame and smoke visible for many miles. Then the charred, sterile soil washed off both mountains, leaving them as domes of rock, with views worthy of their higher northern neighbors, the White Mountains.
As a boy I reveled in the Cardigan’s exposed mountain feel; it played much bigger than its 3100 feet; so too did Firescrew. The absence of trees and brush created this feel; it was all elemental rock pressed up into the sky. Over these decades, soil and seeds have blown into creases in the stone, and generations of grasses have lived and died. Gradually enough soil has accumulated to host bushes, in spots the much-loved blueberry. And on: more growth, more decay, deeper or taller brush, with trees following. It takes only a little imaginative effort to see both peaks reforested some hundreds of years in the future.
And with this little effort and this day’s walking, the door to the room of deep time opens. In this room the rocks live and move; we are kindred, I think, as I sit here looking out.
By Corinne H. Smith
On a Friday, my day-job boss told us that our workplace wouldn’t have electrical power on the following Monday until 2 p.m. Our computer-based jobs would be suspended until the electricity came back on. If we wanted to, we could still come in and do other manual tasks instead. Suddenly I saw terrific potential for an extra four or five hours to work on my manuscript at home. So I told the boss that I would see him at 2 p.m. on Monday. And I left to create the perfect, home-based writer’s retreat.
When we rented this ranch house eighteen months ago, I set up my office in a room in the basement. It’s big enough for my desk and printing station, most of my personal library, and most of my research files. The space is quiet and is fairly nice to sit in throughout the year, and it is super cool during these hot and humid days of summer, without having to turn on any air conditioning. It’s got only one window, though. It doesn’t open, and it looks out onto the carport. All I can see from my desk is the left-rear tire of my Dodge Avenger. It’s A Room without a View.
I’m in the midst of writing a book about Henry David Thoreau that’s aimed at a middle-school age audience, and I want to be inspired by nature as I write this manuscript. I want to be able to see leaves and trees and greenery growing around me, as I gleefully tap the keys on my laptop. I want an outside office.
Happily, this house also has an enclosed porch around back. You can reach it only by walking through the carport and using the door that leads to the yard. So far I’ve used it for storing stuff that hasn’t made it into the basement. But past the 10-speed Schwinn and underneath the many boxes and my thick rolled-up sleeping bag is a table and four cushioned chairs. All along I had intended to sit out here and write. I just hadn’t done it yet. So over the weekend, I dragged some of the boxes down the stairs, and I piled others into corners. I cleared off the table and prepared my space. I got it ready for my Monday morning writing marathon. Here I could sit and type and look out at the trees and the shaggy grass that I haven’t mowed for a while. This would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Henry Thoreau went to the shoreline of Walden Pond to write. Oh, sure, you can say that he wished to live deliberately and wanted suck out all of the marrow of life. But really, he wanted a nice space to figure himself out as the writer he intended to be. His first self-imposed assignment was to write a book about his Concord and Merrimack boat trip with his brother John. So he left the Thoreau home – which could be a busy and noisy one, what with all the visiting aunts and boarders and such – and moved a mile away to a small house he built on Emerson’s lot along the pond. The view from his doorway was a dirt path that led to a lazy tree-lined cove. The only disturbances to this bucolic setting were the occasional trains running along the nearby Fitchburg Railroad line, heading either to Boston or to Fitchburg. Lucky Henry.
I got up on Monday morning in a great mood. This would be the day I would go out and write in the porch! I would adopt a more productive writing routine, and I would finish a nice chunk of Chapter Four. Hooray! But as I ate my breakfast, I heard disturbing sounds coming from outside. Dump trucks, heavy equipment, scraping noises, early morning man chat. Then the beep-beep-beep of a Caterpillar backing up. I looked out of the window to see what was up. That’s when I saw the township trucks and the men in fluorescent green shirts walking around with measuring wheels. Surprise! They were ripping up our road, for who-knows-what reason. They were putting out the red cones to close off the intersection. And there was no telling how long this project would last, or how much noise it would make.
Now, I don’t need complete silence to concentrate and to write. I can sit in a corner of a busy fast-food restaurant and type away for as long as my laptop battery lasts. But today was supposed to be my perfect day for porch writing. I was supposed to hear bird song and the natural nuances of the neighborhood. My suburban sanctuary was suddenly the site of road work. I wasn’t sure what to do.
I trotted downstairs to check on my basement office. I could barely hear the trucks here. It would be a quieter place, and one that would surely stimulate creativity. Plus, all of my reference and Thoreau books were here. No, I told myself. You need to go to the porch, in spite of the noise. You need be outside. You need to make this situation work.
So I came back upstairs and made several trips out to the porch: carrying my laptop, a selection of reference books, a notebook, a pen, and my mug of hot tea. I sat myself down and turned on the computer. The angle of the morning sun made it difficult to see the screen. And if I moved it and myself to another side, the shade made it too dark, and I couldn’t look out to the yard. Well, I’d just have to compensate until the sun rose over the roofline. I squinted out a window. It shouldn’t take too long.
Off and on, I worked on several paragraphs for Chapter Four. But new distraction appeared: of course our wifi connection was still accessible out here. Checking e-mail and Facebook were too-easy diversions, even if I warned myself not to click on them. And then there was the issue of the tea. I had to keep going back inside to the kitchen for more. Granted, when I worked in my basement office, I also had to keep climbing the stairs for more tea. This was a challenge I had to surmount in both places. I needed to find a bottomless source of hot tea to keep me going.
Two feline muses watched me with interest. Maizie, our indoor cat, looked over my shoulder from the kitchen window. Jackie Blue, the little stray kitten I’ve been feeding outside, came into the porch every once in a while to check on me. She swirled around my feet, jumped onto a chair and then on the table, and rubbed against the edge of the open laptop. I stopped her from walking over the keys. I like her well enough, but I was not about to give her editorial control.
I heard the road workers talking and scraping and digging in the distance, with lots of intermittent back-up beeps. But I resisted the temptation to see what they were doing. Gradually I realized that they had given me a gift. Closing the road meant that the regular bus line was temporarily diverted to another street. I wouldn’t hear buses or any of the other traffic that we normally had. And when the men broke for a lengthy lunch, the world got a lot quieter. My creative juices began to flow.
Then I wondered how my writing retreat compared to Henry’s Walden house. He told us that his was “a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.” How big was my room? I went back to the kitchen, got the contractor-grade measuring tape out of the toolbox from underneath the sink, came outside and unrolled it across the porch floor. The measurement was about eleven feet by nine and a half feet. In square footage, my space was smaller than Henry’s was. Also, I didn’t have a fireplace, a root cellar, a garret, or a closet as he did. But I was surrounded on three sides by windows and I had four chairs, not just three. (“One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”) I guess my fourth one was for the kitten.
Somehow, over the course of those four and a half hours, in spite of responding to many distractions and in spite of running back for more hot tea, I was able to get 700 good words added to Chapter Four. Then it was time to close the laptop and the books, and to head off to the day job. I was pleased with my progress. I was pleased with the layout of my suburban writer’s retreat, my Walden away from Walden. I hoped to return to it very soon. But I also hoped that the township guys would be finished with the roadwork by
then. That beep-beep-beeping can back up right over your brain.
July 4th 1855
Like many of us, Henry Thoreau headed for the shore as his summer deepened. After all of June’s recorded nestings and fledgings, perhaps he too had the need to travel some beyond Concord. And, of course, this date must have resonated for him annually, because ten years before, he had set out for his life-defining sojourn at Walden.
But what I like about Thoreau’s journal entry for 7/4/55 is its short dialogue with a ship’s captain and its exclamation points of consternation. Here it is in its entirety:
To Boston on way to Cape Cod with C.
The schooner Melrose was advertised to make her first trip to Provincetown this morning at eight. We reached City (?) Wharf at 8:30. “Well, Captain Crocker, how soon do you start?” To-morrow morning at 9 o’clock.” “But you have advertised to leave at 8 this morning.” “I know it, but we are going to lay over till to-morrow.” !!! So we had to spend the day in Boston, – at the Athenaeum gallery, Alcott’s and at the regatta. Lodged at Alcott’s, who is about moving to Walpole.
There, in a brief exchange and three exclamation points of comment, is summary of all summer travels, especially the dependent kind. Thoreau’s day passed pleasantly enough, it seems, though we get no comment about the gallery or the regatta, both of which we’d like to see through his eyes. And of Alcott we learn the expected: he is about to move…again. Instead, it is the waiting to travel and Captain Crocker – stand-in for everyone in charge of getting us somewhere – that draw Thoreau’s sparse comment. Once “there” – on the Cape – his subsequent entries swell with detail again, and we see what catches his eye. But here on the 4th, we wait and feel lodged in its amber room. Independence will have to wait too.
Getting to the Cape has always been troublesome, it seems.
In Search of Bedrock at Walden
Part of summer’s joy lies in its liberal stretches of reading time. And so the gift of a book often offers immediate rather than delayed pleasure. The other day I received such a gift: Robert Thorson’s Walden’s Shore is a detailed examination of Thoreau and 19th-century geo-science. Thorson is a geology professor at University of Connecticut, and he brings an earth scientist’s deep knowledge of what we walk upon to the work of watching and walking with Henry Thoreau throughout his lifetime.
Noted Thoreau scholar, Jeffrey Cramer, offers a book blurb saying, “Walden’s Shore has no predecessor in the field of Thoreau studies. It is a welcome addition and needed reassessment of an iconic figure.” I’ve found this true. Part of the difficulty of reading Thoreau lies in his transcendence of time – he speaks across ages with insights that lift him from the context of his own time, and a reader can end up looking up to him in a way that leaves that reader ungrounded. There is irony in this of course, because Thoreau’s vision is rooted in his ability to stay very much on the ground, to see in fact into it and take the measure of whatever moves on and through his days in Concord.
Thorson’s gift is also to see beyond the immediate and into what’s often called “deep time” and the shaping of the world we walk. We learn how the surface features at and around Walden tell stories remarkably similar to those intuited by Thoreau during his intense examination of those features. And, from Thorson’s particular reading of Thoreau’s journals, we see a tracery of Thoreau’s deepening tendency toward scientific measurement and thinking as he writes Walden. Thorson keeps track of “every entry where Thoreau seemed to be mensurating or thinking spatially beyond what would have been expected of a competent naturalist of his day.” Before 11/23/50, Thorson finds no cases; from that date forward to the close of the Walden period on 4/27/54,” Thorson counts 62 cases. This reading makes a nice summary of Thoreau’s evolving scientific mind.
“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality,” Thoreau writes in Walden. And Thorson then endeavors to show his readers just where that bedrock bottom is and how Thoreau, ever prescient, apprehended it, well before modern sensing and imaging devices confirmed many of his views.
Thorson also sums up scientific thinking before and up to Thoreau’s writing of Walden, and limns Thoreau’s place in the scientific ferment of his day, when that era’s creationists first felt the swelling power of Darwin’s theories. This is useful, necessary context for a deeper appreciation of Thoreau’s work and intelligence. But, if that were all Walden’s Shore offered I would have stalled in mid book.
For me, a reader (and sometimes writer) of stories, Walden’s Shore’s gifts and appeal are deepened by the interlacing of imagined narratives throughout the book. Just when geologic theory threatens to deaden or swamp my mind, Thorson cuts to narrative – there, then, is Thoreau out walking and recording and opining about what he sees. Here then is the living character in real time, and the drift of continents and clash of tectonics becomes – as it is in our lives – backdrop for our fascination with people.
As Thorson writes in his introduction, “This book is heavily biased toward presenting Thoreau as a competent, pioneering geoscientist. With few exceptions, I emphasize what he got right and overlook what he got wrong or didn’t notice. Mine is not a fair and balanced treatment.” Yes…and because this is at root a narrative of human exploration that seems just fine.
Added note: Thorson writes with clear sentences and an understanding of narrative’s lures and power. That may sound like usual praise; it is not.
by Ashton Nichols
In addition to songbirds, our Creekside is also a realm of raptors; that is to say, it is busy with that expansive group of avian species that include the hawks, and the eagles, and the owls. “Raptor” derives from a Latin word rapere, which means–as you might imagine–to seize forcefully. This morning it was just two red-tailed hawks circling high above the farm fields near us, squawking a call that is known to all of those who remember the television show Northern Exposure: “Awwkkee, aawwkkee!” they cry, as gangs of crows circle around them in small flocks, working hard to chase them away. But the red-tailed hawks often win. Today it seems like a draw, as the crows disperse and scatter into the tall trees off toward the western horizon, and the red-tails sail away into the distance in the direction of North Mountain. With this dramatic encounter of hawks and crows, I thought I was done with my bird-watching for the day, but I was not very prophetic on this blue-skied dawn.
Hawks like these aggressive hunters are here almost every day. Usually it is red-tails like this pair, but sometimes it is Cooper’s hawks or sharp-shins, kestrels (not really much larger than large songbirds) or broad-wings. These hawks in their kettles all gather here because the hunting is so good: field mice and moles, voles and even big rats, all drawn by the hundreds of acres of seeded farm-fields around us, by the stacks of grain and corn in the barns, and by the smaller birds that hawks are also willing to eat. I have seen a peregrine falcon take a sparrow right out of the sky in front of me, in a flash of feathers that looked like an explosion of bird-life.
There are also cats on the farm here, as you might well expect: barn cats in their low dozens: tigers and tortoise-shells, an orange-and-white that is one of my favorites, and even a jet black bit of bad luck, but I like her a lot. Yet even all of these felines cannot keep the microtis (the word that means “small-eared” when it refers to little furry mammals) that surround us at bay. There cannot be too many cats for the hawks; there cannot be too many cats for the rats. Here at Creekside we witness the delicate balance of nature: hawks and cats, mice and rats, and even thousands upon thousands of spring-peeper frogs, but more about them and their role anon.
We also have bald eagles at Creekside this spring and early summer, at least two often-seen juvenile birds that we have been watching closely for almost six months now. We have watched them as they have grown and matured, as they soar from one wide farm-field to the other, and then as they sail away down toward the wide-open creek bed, and especially as they change their wide-winged plumage from brown-and-white splotches to the beautifully characteristic white head and tail. Bald eagles are born with almost as many white feathers as brown ones scattered throughout their wide body and wings and then, as they grow, the brown number increases, and the white one shrinks to just their heads and tails. In the male, as all good Americans know, this white ends up only covering the head and the sparkling white tail. The adult female, however, unlike most other bird species, looks almost exactly like the adult male, but she is a little bit larger all over: her wingspan is wider, she weighs a bit more, her beautifully curved bill is a bit longer, and so are the sharp rear talons on her wildly lizard-looking legs.
Several years ago, there was a registered bald eagle’s nest about five miles to the northwest of us along our same winding creek. A registered nest has watchers from the Audubon Society, and other official birding groups, who regularly report on the condition of the nest, the number of eagle’s eggs, and just how the young develop as they hatch and then mature. But these two juveniles that we have been watching this year are clearly from much closer by; the nest from which they fledged must be just down the hill from us or along the wide ox-bow that winds across and along the creek to our immediate west. These two birds fly close enough to us sometimes so that we can see their curved beaks and reptilian talons. They roost in tall pine trees nearby and the locust trees just behind the house, and then they swoop down and soar across the nearby fields and creek in search of prey. Once, at least once, we saw one of these magnificent birds with that very same prey in its talons, captured and spiked right through with razor sharp claws, a small rodent or other immature mammal, dead now and soaring off across the wide fields toward the mountain ridge above us, another kill, another capture, another protein feast for this fine national bird that we call America’s.
Finally, our owls are the last group of raptors here with us at Creekside. We have never seen one, at least we have not seen one yet, but we often hear them in numbers at night, calling from deep down in the Conodoguinet creek bed. Most often it is the barred owl, with its characteristic, “Who cooks for you all; who cooks for you?” and then sometimes, when we get lucky, we hear the noble great horned owl, with a more stately and solemn, “Whooo, whooo, whoo, whoo! Whoo, whoo, whoo, whooo!”
Some nights these owl calls even drown out the chorus of spring peeper frogs, or these two choruses–avian and reptilian–vie for supremacy, first the frogs taking over, “Kee, ke, ke, kee, keek–Kee, kee, ke, kee,” and then the owls, especially that booming great horned sound, “Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo; whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo!” We drift off to sleep with these sounds in our heads: the huge owls off in the distance and then these tiny frogs, thousands of them not much bigger than the size of your thumbnail–just two hundred to three hundred yards away–peeping loudly: “peeeep, peeep, peep-peep, peeeep,” and we are lulled into unconsciousness by these booming repeated raptor calls followed by these delicate riparian replies.
Solstice – In The Long Light of the Journals
The light woke me before five this morning. Often, these days, it’s the birds, whose singing begins with a single fluted call just after four; that call garners response. Then, the avian neighborhood joins in. But today, appropriately, it was the light, which seemed intent on my living the fullness of this “longest” day of the year. I got up, brewed some coffee and went to a morning chair to read.
Through these days in 1855, Henry Thoreau was also making the most of the long light, spending hours out and about, and, for the most part, recording only the nests he observed in short journal entries. These days form a skein of regeneration: as the light peaks the whole world seems to be rising and chirping from its many cupped circles. Young birds break from their eggs, squall for food, fledge finally, and Henry, as he walked, must always have been looking up. A whole sky alight suggested as much.
But one day, the 18th, on his way to or from The Hemlocks, Henry catches motion on the ground. First one, then another, painted tortoise appears: “I saw a painted tortoise just beginning its hole; then another a dozen rods from the river on the bare barren field near some pitch pines…I stooped down over it, and, to my surprise, after a slight pause it proceeded in its work, directly under and within eighteen inches of my face.” For long minutes Henry stays still in this “constrained position,” watching, as the turtle digs her hole and lays five “wet, flesh-colored” eggs. His description is typically precise, satisfying, and now, this reader thinks, it’s time to rise from this cramping crouch and move on. Perhaps to the next local miracle.
Henry, however, stays; I stay too. And I am rewarded with a recovered favorite image, a dance of completion that seems just right for the days of maximum light:
After these ten minutes or more, it without pause or turning began to scrape the moist earth into the whole with its hind legs, and, when it had half filled it, it carefully pressed it down with the edges of its hind feet, dancing on them alternately, for some time, as on its knees, tilting from side to side, pressing by the whole weight of the rear of its shell…The thoroughness with which the covering was done was remarkable. It persevered in drawing in and dancing on the dry surface which had never been disturbed long after you thought it had done its duty, but it never moved its forefeet, nor once looked round, nor saw the eggs it had laid.
I put the journal down. I have seen such dancing, for me snapping turtles crawled up from a nearby bog. Now the image is fresh again, a dance of the solstice lit by the long day of Henry Thoreau’s writing.
By Corinne H. Smith
Yesterday we had one of those hot and humid days. Ick. You know the kind. Not only was it darn uncomfortable just to sit around and breathe, but it also caused every hair on my head to curl in a different direction. Neither cap-wearing nor combing could remedy the situation. And the hot and humid day turned into a hot and sticky night. The occasional whiffs of air from an open window didn’t do much to cool off the bedroom. I couldn’t get to sleep.
After two hours of just lying there, I decided to get up and to get some work done instead. I might as well be productive, as long as I was awake. I fired up the computer and got out some of my Thoreau books. I wanted to scan his journal for references to a plant I had found in our yard. I hoped Thoreau had seen and felt the same way about it that I did. I had hoped to write a post here in response to whatever he had written.
I opened the first of my two-volume Dover set: a reprint of the 1906 journal volumes that Sandy Stott mentioned in his recent post, “In Touch with the Past” (http://thoreaufarm.org/2014/06/in-touch-with-the-past/). These books are slightly more portable, take up less room, and contain the same text as the ones Sandy uses. But all I found were Henry’s glimpses of the plant, and some of the dates when he saw that it had blossomed. I wanted more details, more substance. This time, he wasn’t forthcoming. I sighed. This particular subject wasn’t going to work. What was I going to write about instead?
Then I stumbled upon this entry:
“June 21. … The warmest day yet. For the last two days I have worn nothing around my neck. This change or putting off of clothing is, methinks, as good an evidence of the increasing warmth of the weather as meteorological instruments. I thought it was hot weather, perchance, when, a month ago, I slept with a window wide open and laid aside [it] a[s] comfortable, but by and by I found that I had got two windows open, and to-night two windows and the door are far from enough.” ~ June 21, 1853
I shook my head. Here we were, sharing the same discomfort, across the span of 161 years. No matter how many bedroom windows we’ve opened, they’ve done nothing to bring us relief. The times, they are not a-changing. This painted a picture of Henry Thoreau that I had not thought of before. The naturalist, the writer, the surveyor, the saunterer, the philosopher? Sure. Someone who lies awake on a steamy summer night and considers the relationship between the rising temperatures and how much clothing a person is wearing? No. But it’s certainly an interesting image. Then again, what else could he do under the circumstances? He didn’t have a computer for entertainment, where he could check his e-mail and what his Facebook friends were doing at midnight.
Alas, Henry. I suspect we will have more of these unbearable and sleepless nights in the next three months. I’ll think of you again whenever the act of opening two windows and a door isn’t enough to cool the bedroom.
By Ashton Nichols
The songbirds here are like nothing I have ever seen or heard, not when I lived in Virginia, or West Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, or London, England, or even at other locations in Pennsylvania. Bluebirds, scarlet tanagers, goldfinches, orioles, and more: the colors bust out like tiny sprays of rainbow, as bright as the sun, as clear as the sky. The songs are trilling and cool, thrilling and crackling, burbling and cackling. It must be that the wooded two-acre forest edge of our small Creekside farm creates a much-needed roosting and feeding spot in the middle of the wide-open swath of cultivated farmland that surrounds us here.
In his chapter in Walden entitled “Sounds,” Thoreau speaks of the birds close by on numerous occasions: of the birds who “sing around or flitted noiseless through the house,” while Henry sits in his “sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs.” Or he tells of the nearby tree branch that is “bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither,” of the sad sounds of the screech owl that remind him “sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung,” and finally of the cockerel, our common rooster, which was once a wild pheasant–“This foreign bird’s note is celebrated by the poets of all countries along with the notes of their native songsters.” Thoreau is often wondering at birds of Walden Pond.
Here at Creekside, we are in the midst of several thousand acres of open space that stretch out to the east and to the west along the center of the Great Valley, with the North Mountain off in one direction and the much older South Mountain off in the other. This South Mountain, which rises near Mount Holly Springs, is renamed the Blue Ridge when it reaches West Virginia and Virginia. According to my geologist colleagues, it is one of the oldest mountain ridges in the world, almost three-quarters of a billion (750,000,000) years old. There were once mountain peaks here that rivaled the five-mile-high Himalayas, but they have been eroded and worn down over millennia to their current 2,000-2,500 foot height.
The wide-spreading oxbow of the Conodoguinet Creek twists its way through the valley here, with huge tree-filled circles, open plowed spaces, and scrub brush fencerows. There are lots of wide spaces of land with few trees at all, no trees for roosting or food spotting, no nesting holes or tree-close clearings for wild mating dances. So the songbirds come to our exceptional and unusual two-acres of Creekside trees; these birds come in their dozens: no, in their hundreds. On some mornings there are too many separate songs to count, too many different body styles to keep track of, and too many various feeding habits to follow.
The oriole is by far the most startling of these songbirds, a veritable clown-bird, with a bright orange-yellow color that is just as bright as the brightest of Halloween pumpkins, then suddenly saturated with black stripes and splotches spread between the yellow-orange outbursts. Next come the bluebirds, not so much sky-blue as some secret Mediterranean blue or ocean blue–known only to world travelers–always one pair of these bluebirds at least, nesting in the small bark-sided bluebird nest tacked to the northwest side of the house. The male bluebird always perches out alone on a stalk of paradise tree that rises out of the abandoned fire circle, an overgrown scrub spot in the middle of the lawn.
Then suddenly, the scarlet tanager flashes brightly, so brightly it is hard to believe this is a natural color, and then a third bluebird, and just as quickly comes a songbird’s call that I have never heard any version of, a new sound: fluty and liquid, delicately musical and very wild at the same time. And always, of course, there are swifts and starlings, blackbirds and sparrows, flycatchers, mockingbirds, and blue-jays, and even a massive red-tailed hawk roosting and hunting small mammals from the tall locust trees in the small woodlot behind us.
Many of us read Henry Thoreau for the way he reaches forward from his world and touches our lives. In his journals, he often seems a conversant, albeit deeply learned, neighbor who has come over to tell us of his newest sighting or thought. But in his particularity, in the fine grains of his writing, Thoreau also enables his readers to touch the past, and thereby span more than just a lifetime.
A number of years back, we received a gift from an acquaintance who had reviewed books for the local paper my wife, Lucille, edited: the book-heavy box contained culls from an octogenarian’s library, but it was also clear that Eleanor Parkhurst was looking for a home for these particular books. I unpacked and found the central tenant of the box was a set of blue, hardcovers with lettering only on their spines. Thoreau’s Writings, it read, and my heart fluttered; they were twenty in total, and the title page gave me their provenance: this was Houghton Mifflin’s set of Thoreau’s writings, edited by Bradford Torrey, published in 1906.
I was put in mind of all of this the other day while reading my copy of Thoreau’s Journal from 1855, and it was the volume itself that did the prompting. Part way through the June 2nd entry, I turned the page…and lost my way; I’d turned two pages, and the rest of that day was hidden between two joined sheets. I reached for the sharp buck-knife I now keep beside me when reading these volumes, slipped it between the pages and drew it carefully outward and down, releasing these two pages 108 years after their printing for the first time. I was their first reader. And that seemed to clear my sightline to that day.
On the newly-free page, “About the middle of the forenoon Sophia came in and exclaimed that there was a moth on my window. At first, I supposed that she meant a cloth-eating moth, but it turned out that my A. cecropia had come out and dropped down to the window-sill, where it hung on the side of a slipper (which was inserted into another) to let its wings hang down and develop themselves.”
Thoreau goes on, predictably, to precise description of “how it waxed and grew, revealing some new beauty every fifteen minutes, which I called Sophia to see…”
In the wonder of the moment, in the brother calling his sister to come see, I had slipped into the room, and they had materialized in mine; there is something about cutting your own pages that brings this migration about.
Reflective Writing Near the Water’s Edge
Walden Pond is alive again with wind and light. I’ve been there often during the past month, admiring its blues and greens (depending upon where I am in elevation and the day’s light) and wondering at its still-clear waters. One day soon I’ll wade in. But for now, as the water warms a bit each day, I’ve only been looking, and, as looking often does, this pond-gazing has triggered memory.
Last spring, a student sat down to describe a dilemma she’d encountered while writing about her reading of Walden. “As I write, in part about myself, I don’t want it to seem narcissistic,” she said. This worry followed a description of the expansive pleasures of meeting with friends to talk about whatever ideas were current in the air of school, to talk about something other than the self.
As we talked over her concern, a thought grew. First we looked up the legend of Narcissus and reread the story of his falling in love with his reflection, which he took to be real. Before he saw himself, Narcissus was puzzled and harried because the local nymphs simply wouldn’t leave him alone. “I’m just me, just a man,” he seemed to be thinking as he wandered and pondered this unwanted attention. Then, he came to a pool of water and looked down. All that attention seemed merited now; Narcissus couldn’t bear to leave the pool in which his beautiful image floated, and so he wasted away there.
Then we began to talk about Henry Thoreau and water.
Henry too looked into the waters of Walden often, she noted, but, when he did so, he saw something other than himself; he saw, in fact, another being, perhaps a companion-self – the pond.
All of this got me to thinking that what we were really talking about was the difference between Thoreau’s faith in “I” and our society’s fascination with “I.” At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau points out that he will write about himself, about “I,” in no small measure because he knows no one else so well. But this writing will not celebrate the trivial “I,” the “I” of gossip and small affairs. It will, instead, follow the questing “I,” the one who would learn of the world and send that learning on to others…with the admonition, finally, that they learn for themselves, that they learn the “I’s” they are.
So, to see yourself in a pond, not because it looks like you, but because it lives like you seems the right distinction. As we emerged from our conversation, my student went off to write, and I thought about my faith in the “I” she is and will be.
By Ashton Nichols
A juvenile red-tailed hawk in the woodlot behind our house roosts regularly in one tall locust tree and one tall pine tree. On a cool, recent May morning, he has slaughtered a large, brilliant red male cardinal and left his prey splayed in a crucified pose on the path that cuts toward the back corner of our property. The cardinal’s wings are angled on the straight horizontal, his head is completely gone, and his formerly fat midsection is now flattened and open, all of its organs absent. A blood-red mass in the middle of his body matches the color of his feathers almost perfectly. One small piece of his innards hangs over his reptilian leg skin and onto the ground. His tail is fanned out perfectly, as if a taxidermist or a museum exhibitor had arranged it in this fashion.
As Thoreau said of the recently dead horse that was lying in the woods not far from his Walden cabin and rotting in the 1850s, “I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp.” What he meant, and what he repeats often throughout his masterpiece, is that death is the engine of life, death is the substance of birth. Without death, there would be no new life and no raw materials to fashion the next generation of life. This is actually what disturbed those early Victorians most when they first read the works of Charles Darwin. It was not that we were descended from ape-like creatures, nor that we were part of a long line of remarkable living beings to whom we are obviously closely related: all of us from mammals to fish (and even further) have two eyes, two ears, one nose but two nostrils, two arms and two legs–or thereabouts–and one brain. That hawk’s brain looks a lot like your brain; so does that cardinal’s missing brain.
The next morning the caught cardinal is gone, no remnant of the red-tailed raptor’s feast remains, nothing at all except one tiny fluff of still blood-red feathers. Where has that beautiful body disappeared to on this cool and sunny dawn? On this second morning, the juvenile red-tail is still perched above his killing field, his head clicking from side to side, his eyelids batting quickly, his talons clutched tightly on the wide branch beneath. Later that afternoon, he is joined by a second hawk, the two vigilant hunters standing only inches apart, their eyes surveying the wide farm fields and woods toward the low mountains beyond, off in the north and the west. All cardinals in this neighborhood of ours–beware!
by Corinne Hosfeld Smith
“The lilac is scented at every house.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 22, 1853
Lilac bushes aren’t technically “wild,” because they have to be planted by humans. In spite of this distinction, Henry Thoreau did not ignore the ones growing in his own neighborhood. According to the records found in his journal entries, he saw Concord’s fragrant purple and white flowers blooming most often from about May 17 to May 22. This was the week when the air of the northeastern spring became heavy with their signature and heady perfume.
Thoreau continued to observe lilacs throughout the year and away from the center of town. He mentioned them in the “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors” chapter of Walden. In the fields and forests that surrounded the pond, he came upon abandoned plots that were once occupied by former slaves and emancipated black freemen. The “former inhabitants” had died or had moved away many years earlier. Their houses had already been removed or reclaimed by the earth. But it wasn’t difficult to find the spots where they had once stood. All you had to do was look for lilacs.
Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and
the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be
plucked by the musing traveller [sic]; planted and tended once by children’s
hands, in front-yard plots, – now standing by wall-sides in retired pastures,
and giving place to new-rising forests; — the last of that stirp [ancestral line],
sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the
puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the
shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive
them, and the house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man’s
garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a
half-century after they had grown up and died, — blossoming as fair, and
smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil,
cheerful, lilac colors.
The people were gone, but the purple and white flowering bushes remained behind.
In later years, when Thoreau became interested in seed dispersion and the reproductive and growing properties of each plant species, he turned again to the lilacs. On October 25, 1860, he walked to one of those sites and lobbed off a branch. Determining the age of a lilac can be difficult, since it grows from multiple trunks. Yet Thoreau recorded his findings:
Cut one of the largest of the lilacs at the Nutting wall, eighteen inches
from the ground. It there measures one and five sixteenths inches and
has twenty distinct rings from centre, then about twelve very fine, not
thicker than previous three; equals thirty-two in all. It evidently dies
down many times, and yet lives and sends up fresh shoots from the root.
He had casually predicted in Walden that these bushes were at least a generation old. He now had scientific proof of the fact, as he counted thirty-two rings in the cutting.
In the summer of 1861, Thoreau traveled with Horace Mann Jr. to the American Midwest. On their return route, the men spent a few days on Mackinac Island: the unique outcropping sitting just north of the mitten of Michigan, and located between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. There, the two men “botanized” and chatted with the local residents. In the middle of Thoreau’s plant inventory for Mackinac, he wrote “Apple in bloom & lilac.” He circled the words for emphasis. He probably found this sighting interesting because of the date. June was turning into July. Here on Mackinac, apple trees and lilacs bloomed more than a full month later than they did back in Massachusetts. The island’s position above the 45th parallel resulted in a condensed growing season. Thoreau probably realized that the vegetation in this place didn’t adhere to the plant records he had compiled back home. Unfortunately, he could spend only a few days studying plants before he had to continue his journey.
The favorable and cool habitat of Mackinac Island causes its lilacs to grow so large that residents refer to them as “trees.” They may be big, but they aren’t necessarily ancient. Their origins probably date to the 1820s, when settlers could have brought them from New England or elsewhere. No printed documentation has been found to confirm this theory, though. In fact, Thoreau’s quick jotting written in his 1861 trip field notebook seems to be the earliest written reference we have to the lilacs of Mackinac. Of course, Mackinac’s bushes still bloom well after the ones in Massachusetts and the rest of the northeastern U.S. The ten-day Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is scheduled to be held June 6-15, 2014.
Today many of us can find lilacs scenting our own yards, neighborhoods, and towns. And today lilacs bloom in the yards of two of Henry Thoreau’s houses in Concord: the one he was born in (Thoreau Farm) and the one he died in (the Thoreau-Alcott House, or the Yellow House). None of these bushes are old enough to date to his time. Yet the plant-to-human reference is here. The resident may be gone, but the purple and white blossoms remain. Perhaps his spirit is hanging around them, too, marking their ” still tender, civil, cheerful, lilac colors.”
Suddenly, it seems, my field of vision is crowded – from accustomed long sightlines over sweeps of terrain it has narrowed to pinholes and hints of what’s beyond. The greeny leaves have unfurled, and I am back in the lime-lit world of the immediate. Also now, the merest stir of air lends an arrhythmic wobble to each leafy mobile as the breeze passes, and even a mild wind bends whole branches to its will. All of this news is sung each morning; starting just before 4:00 a.m. with the birds, spring is expressed.
That it has been a cold spring is a still strong memory, and perhaps that accounts for the sudden feeling of the leaves’ arrival. The buds swelled early, it seemed. But the buds always swell well before they offer leaves. We wait out the days of their return.
Much has been made recently of spring’s surge to earlier and earlier expression, and Henry Thoreau’s records of its advent have offered the sort of precise observation that satisfies scientists and floats popular narratives. Boston University scientist, Richard Primack, has made compelling use of Thoreau’s work as part of the tsunami of evidence that suggests our climate is changing.
Here, at the Concord school where I work, we have our own modest set of observations that add to this legacy of looking for spring. One of our scientists has been photographing the maple tree behind our meeting house for the past 8 years, and one of the occurences he has tracked is the date of the first leaf on the tree. This May 11th our first leaf appeared – and we haven’t been this late for leafing out since 7 years ago. This spring is almost 2 weeks later than what we’ve been experiencing for the past 2 years.
It’s modest example, but of such variability is public skepticism of climate change made. We are, with our 360-degree sense of touch, characters of the immediate; even in our most cerebral and farsighted moments what touches us often varies from what prolonged observation and reason support.
Today, the wind is from the south, and the hazy air is thick with the scent of lilacs; we’re only a few degrees short of drowsy. Stringing the steel wire of will to long-term findings and change is hard work for this immediate animal, especially as the body feels the soft stir of warm air that it loves.
Editor’s Note: Corinne Smith, author of Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey, will be speaking at the Acton Memorial Library, on Thursday, May 15th at 7:00 p.m.
By Corinne H. Smith
“How encouraging to perceive again that faint tinge of green, spreading amid the russet on earth’s cheeks! I revive with Nature; her victory is mine. This is my jewelry.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 3, 1856
“Green is essentially VIVID, or the color of life, and it is therefore most brilliant when a plant is moist or most alive. A plant is said to be green in opposition to being withered and dead. The word, according to Webster, is from the Saxon GRENE, to grow, and hence is the color of herbage when growing.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 2, 1855
When I was a child, I loved crayons and coloring books. I liked to fill the blank spaces with the colors of my own choosing. I was never too daring, though. I stuck to the palette of the world as I understood it. I never ended up with purple skies or purple people. (Even though that was then my favorite color.) I always used the crayon marked GREEN for grass, for leaves, and for the tops of the trees. After all, that’s what we were taught. The sky is blue, the grass is green. So that’s what we saw. It came down to the basics. At that young age, I conformed to them.
Soon, I advanced beyond the primary colors and got the double-box set of 24 crayons. Now I had additional greens to consider, like OLIVE GREEN and BLUE GREEN. Neither one of these looked very much like green to me. Had someone made a mistake on the labels? And why did I now have both YELLOW GREEN and GREEN YELLOW? How could the order of the words make such a difference when I applied these colors to the page? How would I ever remember which one I liked better? I began to keep my favorites on the right-hand side of the container so that I would never pick up the “wrong” one by mistake.
But getting older meant eventually advancing to the big box. 64 crayons – Alas! Suddenly I had too many choices. What was with all of these greens? In addition to the previous ones from the smaller collection, I now had FOREST GREEN and PINE GREEN as options. My young suburban mind didn’t grasp the nuances of these two, either. Didn’t pine trees grow in forests? How could these colors be different? The one that confused me the most was the crayon labeled SPRING GREEN. It wasn’t really a green, and it wasn’t really a yellow. It was neither YELLOW GREEN nor GREEN YELLOW. Evidently someone at the crayon factory thought that it represented a color found in the natural world during the season of Spring. This is silly, I thought, as I slid the crayon into the left-hand side of the box. I’d never seen that color in our neighborhood in Spring.
Well, now I do.
As an adult, I’ve grown to notice all of the variations on the green theme that emerge in front of us as winter winds down. Now I love it. Now I find it fascinating. The willows start first, soon after the groundhog pops out of his den to scrutinize his shadow. They seem to turn that GREEN YELLOW hue before the green intensifies. Other trees begin with tiny leaflets that are SPRING GREEN or YELLOW GREEN before they deepen in color. But each tree is different. Each field or each lawn is different. You can look across the countryside today and see more greens than you ever thought were possible.
“To be awake is to be alive,” Henry Thoreau said. Sometimes we see the finer details only as we get older, I guess. We realize that the sky is rarely entirely blue, and that even the most manicured lawn is made up of a variety of greens. And in the wider landscape that is Spring-ing up around us, Dame Nature is using all of the colors in the box, and then some. Fifty years later, SPRING GREEN now makes sense to me. Who knew that you could learn so much from a fist-full of crayons?
Who knew that a single color could have so many cousins?
May 6th. You’d think it would be embossed in my mind – all these years of reading and teaching Thoreau, and yet, it slipped by again.
On the evening of this slippage, while I supervised an impatient study hall, I wondered to myself: why is that?
Here’s what I answered: it sounds simple, hokey, even, but for me, Henry Thoreau lives on. It would be a cliche to point to Walden and other works and say, “see, all around the world people read these words and then look up and change; all around the world people read and develop or renew their faith in I.” True…but trite to write.
And I’ve been reading through his spring journal of 1855, even as I live my spring of 2014. We have shared hawks and peepers and redwing blackbirds, woodland meanderings. All good, but…
Here then is a more personal truth: years of living with Henry Thoreau’s writing have given me new eyes. Every day when I walk out the door, I look up, I scan the peripheries of each world I step into – yesterday the robin nesting in the dwarf pine was facing east as she sat atop her two blue eggs; today, she’s facing south. The copper beech in the yard is kicking finally last year’s dun leaves from a hold that endured quite a winter. The parking lot maple prepares a riot of seeds…so much faith.
It all begins…again.
Note: no quotations from Henry Thoreau in this post, but I like to think a similar spirit suffused his mountains.
The other day, while small-stepping along the trails that lead to and from Walden, I got to thinking about footwork. A lifetime of trails has kept me reasonably adept at the juggling cadence needed for New England trails and their studding of rocks and roots, often disguised by leaf litter. But it was a sharp downhill that triggered this running meditation.
Not long ago, I’d heard from a younger friend who runs mountain trails. I’d asked for a report about a loop I like, and I had gotten back a detailed account of a daylight-long ramble. At its close he wrote, “the last five miles go by pretty quickly with a bomber descent off Flume and a flat mile out to the road.” ‘Bomber descent,’ I thought as I short-stepped down the sharp, forty-foot drop off an esker; ‘no way no way no way no no way…’ – this one-syllable no-mantra set up with my stepping.
All of New England’s mountains genuflect to their northern shaper, the glaciers, gone to water for now, but likely to cycle back at some point. The upended, frost-split rock is their residue, and everyone who visits our uplands must contend with its odd angles.
As boy turned loose for the first time from parental supervision, I began to stride and run through the White Mountains. I was seventeen; I was in a hurry. Beyond each summit was another, and that was where I wanted to be.
Memory’s scrapbook holds images from a summer day moving north along the ridge that joins Mt. Washington to Mt. Jefferson; I am with a 17-year-old friend who is new to these hills and their jumbled trails; I am his trail-tutor. “Look,” I say, eyeing the half-mile descent of Mt. Clay’s flank, “it’s more fun to run this.” I don’t think so,” he replies, and he starts down in a stolid fashion. “At least take my pack,” I say, and he returns, shoulders it (only a day pack) and turns downhill again. I watch him grow steadily smaller.
The amperage loose in my system has me edgy, which is another way to say sharp. I see my first five steps and figure the rest will appear. They do. I land on various edges, listen to the hollow clunk of my boots and odd knocking stones, and when I can’t find my next step immediately, I do what my mountain-running counselor taught me at fourteen – I “go up.”
“Going up,” jumping higher when you see no landing, may sound counterintuitive, but it works. In those few airborne seconds, you find your next step, even if it is a thin edge of stone; and then you quick-step on. This is rock-dancing, and in that era of life that was my way.
That memory leads to appreciation for the ways our walking changes over time. And so, even as I walk and shuffle the same trails as my younger friend and my younger self, I leave the bombing to them and dance now in short steps. They are my little feats.
Post note: surely, when you consider the ground Henry Thoreau covered on his walks and in the hills, he too must have “danced” or “bombed” some of his descents.
Hawks were much on Henry’s mind during the April days of 1855. Often, he had taken to the water, and, as he rowed and floated, he saw fish hawks; being Henry, he wanted to know what these hawks were eating, and a number of entries have a catalogue of pout parts found beneath a hawk’s perch – another recorded arc in our round world’s cycles. And whenever he walked he scanned for them too: “Going up the hill, I examined the treetops for hawks.”
Throughout these days and lines wherever hawks appear so too does the loud, dark shadow of the crow. For days now I’ve had this avian pairing in mind as another chapter of its story plays out atop a tall hemlock next to the Sudbury River.
Hawk Notes from Three Spring Days
Most mornings this spring, the tall hemlock by the Sudbury River has been topped by his figure. Still from this distance, sentinel-like, this young redtail hawk takes in the floodplain, and were I a four-footed scurrier, I’d hope to be aware he’s there.
Morning after a strong front blew through: no time to be totem for the redtail today. He comes to his morning perch and lights, folds his wings; immediately he has to flare them for balance, then the red rudder of his tail fans out and tips him forward. He looks like a child on a teeter-totter, or an athlete rehabbing his bum ankle. For a full minute he wobbles; the whole world of his vision must rock. Then he opens his wings, flies off downwind, sinking to and skimming the field before pulling up into the gray branches of just-flowering, shorter maple.
And this morning under low clouds, I’m watching as the hawk pulls up flaring wings to his perch; above and fully engaged is a single crow, and the crow begins a series of inverted parabolas, diving on the hawk, whose feathers are truly ruffled – he still looks as if he slept in them. Then, for a minute or so, the crow lights in a nearby tree crown, and, through binoculars I can see him “talking” at the hawk, who turns to face him. “Yo, young fella,” he seems to say. “I’m comin’ right back; I’ll be on you all day like red on your tail.” The crow then lifts off and resumes his diving harassment, and, at each near approach, the hawk ducks his head a little and opens his beak…and I wonder if there’s a price for flying too close, or if this is another part of the world’s tutorial for this young hawk, who also seems to be in his first molt.
On this third morning the washed air after a rain makes the redtail shine, even as his primary color is dun. He is perched to the right and below his usual uppermost point, and perhaps that’s because his black nemesis is here too. Can this be the same crow? Did he sleep nearby, open his yellow eye and say, “Where’s my hawk?” stretch his wings and resume his inverted parabolas of outrage? Really? As I watch through glasses, the hawk tracks the swooping dives of the crow, opening his beak and flaring a wing and cringing (it must be said) at each approach; the crow drops into my magnified field of vision, accelerating to and by the hawk’s head, then rises away and out of sight. I time his appearances – every 7 or 8 seconds, he’s back; when a longer interval arrives, I put down the glasses and find him atop a nearby maple. Even without magnification, it’s clear he’s still talking at the hawk, even as he must be doing whatever the bird equivalent of panting is.
Then, after all this, the crow suddenly arrows away south; the hawk watches him go, wondering, I’m sure, when he’ll be back. I wonder too. For now, the hawk is again alone on top, totemic, imperturbable.
Spring is bird season in Henry’s journals – and here today. Their morning chorus chases off the cold winter silence, and everywhere they are constructing the coming season from beakfuls of grasses and twigs. Overseeing it all is a Sudbury River hawk.
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.