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”
1971 at a small college to the west:
I shift, redistributing my weight on the folding wooden chair. The sun catches in the black folds of my gown, and there the heat grows intense; it seems to swim up in waves before my eyes, which stare vaguely at the figure on the stage. A rivulet of sweat trickles down the center of my back. Were a race of ingested chemicals loose in my bloodstream, the waving arms and the white angel’s robe before me would say “hallucination.” But the hand of the sun and the bass throb of headache and the heavy morning light of May say simply, “He is just a man, a speaker; sit.”
A phalanx of black-gowned, degree-hooded professors sits patiently on a stage stretched across the courtyard’s only shade and listens while the white-clothed poet dismisses their world with a flip of his raised hands. “What do you know?” says Robert Bly to me and my rank of classmates. “Not much,” he concludes for us. “Yet.” I shift again, glance down the row to my friend Tim, try then to cast back to the comfort of last night’s darkness and its final raucous cries, a night of raised glasses and imagined worlds that are already washed up on the day’s sun-warmed rocks. “But here’s how you can begin to learn. To learn about the real life of this world. Borrow five hundred dollars from your parents, and go live in the woods.” Professors stiffen visibly; I settle back in my chair and eye the poet. “Go to the woods where the world is formed,” Bly says.
Though Henry Thoreau is still a distant, future reading and walking companion, I, an indifferent student these four years past, straighten a little in my chair, begin to take notice of instruction even as the gates of school are swinging shut. The poet’s arms rise and fall, miming flight even as he urges it. He cites others of his ilk, composers along the world’s margins, layered, revered presences in classrooms but unknown elsewhere. Here is Thoreau again — “There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life…”
Already though, in my little square of faux-shade cast by the mortarboard, I am drifting; only this light puff of advice nudges me now toward the woods.
Another wind blows high over the country, a kind of reverse jet stream that courses from east to west. Big-bellied planes descend from it and disgorge fatigue-cloaked eighteen-year-olds and fat-wheeled vehicles on the airstrips of Vietnam. Bly has been invited to this launching of young men because he is famously against this poorly-explained war that seems intent on soaking up a generation of unaffiliated young men. Yesterday, in the school’s chapel, he railed against the distant war and its besuited prosecutors. He implored our cohort of three hundred soon-to-be graduates to resist; he talked about loss of humanity, loss of self, and he read anthem-like verses from the long generations of robed poets, who turned from the savage beauty rendered by their ur-brother Homer and said “no.” He read to young men who sat there counting the touches of the slow finger of the Selective Service as it pointed singly to birth-date after birth-date. I weighed mine against the coming months. One hundred and fifty-five. The current call had reached seventy-seven. Up high, the wind roared.
The sun lies in tiger stripes across the rugs in the quiet house. Both parents are at work, and my brother still has weeks of school before late June’s release. At the breakfast table, slowly eating milk-sodden cereal, I sketch the lines of my plan. The five hundred dollars is out of the question. Already, the past four years has added a complex of debt to my parents’ calculations, and I am the first sibling out of the house. But there is the old house, a thin-walled, unplumbed, old clapboard cape set at road’s end on a New Hampshire knoll, looking out over reclaimed pastures and guarded by a paternal barn. There is the old house. And around it there is the valley, circumscribed by the high arms of two ridgelines that sweep finally up to the mountain.
My parents bought the house and surrounding land ten years ago as a place of distant retirement, and as a family retreat. Summers of sawing and scything and winters of trudging and skiing have taught us all the valley’s first lessons, given us first rewards — small but open fields for meandering and berrying, and thick, regrown woodlands for a sense of original land. I first drove myself there a little over four years ago. In a rare instance of overlap where school and life intersected, I wrote about this journey and submitted it to the college’s student literary magazine. Its near-acceptance — they asked for revisions, and I never gotten around to making them — was a high point in an otherwise mired, final year. I still had the dog-eared sheets and the note asking for revision. The house and the essay are the thin walls of my plan; they are a beginning.
A Commencement Address
By Henry David Thoreau
Assembled and slightly augmented by Corinne H. Smith
Corinne H. Smith is a tour guide and program coordinator at the
Thoreau Farm Birthplace, and is the author of ‘Westward I Go Free:
Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey.
Thank you for inviting me to speak on this occasion. As some of you may know, I am not without opinion about the experiment you are about to launch. Here are a few thoughts for company along the way.
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (Walden, ”The Village”)
Perhaps you have heard of a particular endeavor, which I once embarked upon.
I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again. (Walden, “Economy”)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life … (Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”)
It is worth the while to have lived a primitive wilderness life at some time, to know what are, after all, the necessaries of life and what methods society has taken to supply them. (Journal, 1845-1846)
I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. (Walden, “Solitude”)
I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.
(Journal, December 28, 1856)
I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. (Walden, “Economy”)
My retreat also gave me the chance to write, to think, and to question.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. (Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”)
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. (Walden, “Economy”)
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…. (Walden, “Economy”)
Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. (Walden, “Baker Farm”)
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problems of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. (Letter to H.G.O. Blake, March 27, 1848)
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. (Walden, “Higher Laws”)
If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. (Walden, “Higher Laws”)
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account … I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. (Walden, “Economy”)
For more than a decade, you have participated in, and perhaps have learned from an educational system. I ask,
What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook. (Journal, 1850)
Today marks the opportunity to break through these banks of clay, and to begin to flow where your own waters will lead you.
Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this. … Take any other course, and life will be a succession of regrets. Let us see vessels sailing prosperously before the wind, and not simply stranded barks. There is no world for the penitent and regretful. (Journal, April 24, 1859)
If there is an experiment which you would like to try – try it. Do not entertain doubts if they are not agreeable to you. Remember that you need not eat unless you are hungry. … Do what nobody else can do for you – Omit to do anything else. (Letter to H.G.O. Blake, August 9, 1850)
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
The Universe is wider than our views of it. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
By Corinne H. Smith
In recent years, Dr. Richard B. Primack and his Boston University associates have used Henry Thoreau’s meticulous botanical notes to track global warming. Henry recorded the days when various flowers bloomed annually in Concord in the 1850s. The BU folks compared his dates to current data and proved that plants were now flowering earlier. Finally, Mr. Thoreau gained the scientific reputation that he deserved all along.
But I have learned that you don’t have to be an academic researcher in order to figure out the difference that a century and a half makes. All you have to do is watch the crab apple trees.
When Thoreau traveled to Minnesota in 1861, he and traveling companion Horace Mann Jr. “botanized” from the train windows. They crossed southern Michigan via the Michigan Central Railroad on May 21, and began to glimpse trees with pink and white blossoms in the distance. What were they? The Massachusetts men weren’t sure. They were given no chances to jump out at any station stops and examine the branches closely.
After spending an extra day in Chicago, the duo crossed northern Illinois on May 23. Again, they saw the mysterious trees in bloom as they rattled through farmland and prairie land. And once again, they never stopped close enough to one to scrutinize it or to grab a sample.
Our northern Spring explodes with pink and white hues: cherry trees, Japanese cherries, apple trees, dogwoods, red buds, crab apples. Each one adds beauty to a landscape that is just beginning to otherwise grow green. The brilliant blossoms can create the most remarkable scenes, especially when the warmer days come on the heels of a cold and colorless Winter. We almost don’t remember that such colors exist, until Spring revives them. Today, it can feel as if we’ve suddenly gone from the set of a 1950s black and white movie to a 21st-century high definition thriller. And sometimes, the transformation can occur overnight.
Henry Thoreau knew about these other trees, but not about the crab apple, Malas coronaria. It was not a New England native. He’d never seen one before. He had read about them, and he had even considered buying one from a Pennsylvania nursery and planting it in his yard in Concord. Now he suspected that this Midwestern specimen was the crab apple that had to date eluded him. He considered it a “half-fabulous tree” and was dismayed that he had been “launched on the bosom of the Mississippi without having touched one.” He may have mourned this lost opportunity.
Thoreau and Mann spent about a month in Minnesota. It wasn’t until June 11th that Henry returned to the idea of tracking down a crab apple. He finally found one that had been planted by a nurseryman who had relocated from Virginia and had brought some southern species with him. Thoreau clipped a sample for his herbarium. But of course, by then the flowers were long gone. He never did get a chance to examine the beautiful blossoms.
The bottom line is that Thoreau saw crab apples in bloom in the Midwest on May 21 and 23, 1861. When did your crab apple blossoms appear this year?
Where I live in southeastern Pennsylvania, the crabs came out during the third week of April. I suspect that they’re still blooming in Massachusetts and other points north as I pen this post. Even taking regional differences into account, our crab apples emerge well before the ones Thoreau saw, back then. Yes, our season begins earlier than his. But wouldn’t Thoreau be pleased to know that, thanks to contemporary landscaping techniques, crab apples now grow in many yards in Concord? Today he wouldn’t have to go far to see one.
It’s an expansive time of year – leaves, light, day’s limits, everything unfurls – and, when I’m inside, I’m itchy to be elsewhere, as long as “elsewhere” is outside. So, in this season even my reading tends toward travel of a local or farflung nature. Thoreau’s Maine Woods, for all it geographic proximity, seems a right reading; it draws me in the spring. The other day, as Henry and friends pressed deeper into an older, deep-timbered Maine, I came across a character called Kennebec Man; Kennebec Man stuck in my mind, and around this burr of name a small poem formed (It also, despite April’s passing, seems the season of the poem).
What new characters or poems have taken up lodging in your mind?
“Kennebec Man,” when we meet
you’re in another’s watershed
a seam across the central open
mitt of Maine your river away to
the southeast of this Penobscot that
Henry ascends with friends on his way
to far Ktaadn. What makes you
the moment’s ur-man is the writer’s
habit of surnaming only those
who settle to trade along this route
to an original interior and
perhaps his sympathy for seeing
a fellow elevated by water.
You are gone in the flick
of a page – your life may have
seemed so short too – but all day
you have poled upriver against
the general flow of forgetting
keeping current in my mind
making me wonder who you were.
by Deborah Bier
“If one advances confidently in the direction of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Henry Thoreau
On a sunny Saturday in April, at Thoreau Farm, we advanced confidently toward the garden with a new fence in mind, and we were successful beyond our wildest expectations! We built our fence thoughtfully, using as many recycled materials as possible, leaving a small carbon footprint; we wanted our fence to be natural and aesthetically pleasing. And we did not want to use any toxic chemicals.
At Thoreau Farm, we have been fortunate to have very little animal predation other than some small rodents (chipmunks, mice, squirrels). So our fence was mostly to keep young human animals out of the garden where their curious feet might bring them when their parents looked away.
We live a little more than a mile from Thoreau Farm, and last summer my husband, Rich, had felled some trees in our yard – a white oak, a spruce, and some self-sowed crab apples. We also had a number of large sycamore branches downed in storms. So, we had a huge pile of brush, and, instead of an enormous spring burn (Rich’s preference), I realized we could find most of our fence materials in this lovely wood.
Happily, we were able to cut all our posts and vertical fence members from this backyard wood, and as we did this, we grouped each type of wood (or at least tried to) to a single length of fence, our thinking being that each type of wood would rot at a different speed. When replacement time arrived, we would then replace an entire section of fence at the same time, rather than single pieces here and there.
To hold together these vertical slats, we used modern milled pine strapping. We knew that, at first, this fresh wood would stick out visibly, but that it would also age pleasantly in about a year, especially if we kept it outdoors over the winter. Though this aging would shorten the lifespan of the fence, it would be more aesthetically pleasing when seen in relation to the house’s circa-1878 exterior.
We built the fence over two weekends, using enthusiastic volunteers from our kitchen garden committee, their spouses, and other friends of Thoreau Farm. Our fence-building was like a barn-raising, only much, much more manageable. Still, the effect of neighbors working together with our hands to create something useful and beautiful was a pleasure and delight.
Yes, we used modern fasteners and tools — some human powered, others electric. But one must recall that our kitchen garden is not an historic re-enactment, but rather a working experiment in combining heirloom seeds with cutting edge organic and bio-intensive gardening methods.
As the fence went up that fresh wood just bugged me: it was so raw, and yet I hated to reduce the lifespan of the fence just to weather it. And then I recalled that I knew something about how to make new wood appear old, without using toxic chemicals or esoteric ingredients. I had learned of this process on Pinterest, of all places. Using this info, I created a brown stain by soaking steel wool in white vinegar for 5 days. The resulting solution was surprisingly light, at first, showing as just slightly more brown than the color of the wood. Within 30 seconds, however, it was considerably darker. After another minute, it was very dark. We could not believe how amazingly well it worked — we kept looking and exclaiming about it!
Afterward, we agreed that it was actually a bit comical how surprised we were, because it’s likely a process folks knew and took for granted back in Thoreau’s day, part of the every-day “how to do things” knowledge acquired by people here for centuries. Now, this knowledge had become rare again, exotic even.
Then it struck us: why should we all be so surprised? Don’t we recount on the Thoreau Farmhouse tour how the backs of houses used to be painted red using pigments made with inexpensive iron oxide? Which is just another way of saying “rust”! I don’t know why, but it took us all this time to put that together. Now, I recall that I read somewhere they had used iron nails instead of steel wool for stain, but hadn’t understood it until now. But what a great use for too bent or broken nails.
I also learned from Pinterest that you can use pennies and vinegar to create a blue stain. According to this article, you have to find pennies with a 1962 or earlier date, since there is so little copper in them now.
We can’t wait to try it!
By Corinne H. Smith
“Spring.” What an appropriate word! Over the past few weeks, all sorts of unexpected plants have begun to spring up in our yard. Unfortunately, some of them pose more questions than they answer.
When we moved to this property in December, the landscape was brown. All of the plants had been cleared out or trimmed close before our arrival. Now a few colorful hyacinths and daffodils dot our borders. Obviously somebody planted them on the west side of the house and along the back edge of the yard. But why are a few also blooming in the two-foot-by-two-foot plot between the two equipment sheds? Who will ever see them, besides the next-door neighbors and the skunk who trots through here every night? I may need to move them when the petals are gone.
All winter long, I stared out of the living room window at an empty dirt patch that lay under a tree in the front yard. I couldn’t wait for the chance to sprinkle grass seed there. But before I could get to the hardware store, fresh shoots of hostas began to emerge from the soil. I was both annoyed and overjoyed at the sight. Annoyed, because I had hoped to “make the earth say grass” at that spot, to paraphrase Mr. Thoreau. But since I had also planned to line the front edge of the house with a row of hostas, I was grateful. I didn’t need to buy any new ones at all. I just dug these up and transplanted them. They already seem happier in their new locations.
In the meantime, still more greenery has followed the hostas into what I thought had been a barren space. I don’t recognize them yet. But I’ve decided not to mow them.
Two parallel rows of peony bushes have made themselves known in the back yard. Whether they’ll end up showing us pink or white blossoms is anybody’s guess. That’s another section that I’ll have to pay attention to, whenever I’m mowing. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with the burgeoning carpet of the lily of the valley plants that have spilled over from their original bed. They may get cut.
My Midwestern friends should be pleased to know that I have diligently pulled out – with their roots intact – every sprig of garlic mustard that I’ve seen on the property. People in the Northeast don’t seem to be as concerned about this invasive species as residents in the Midwest are, I’ve learned. But I can’t escape my prairieland training. Out they’ve come.
Thoreau once wrote in his journal, “The humblest weed is indescribably beautiful.” (January 11, 1854) Well then, Henry would deem our lawn to be unbelievably stunning. It’s full of all kinds of tiny flowering plants. Grass is a threatened minority, and the overall color is more purple-blue than green. We’ve got violets and creeping Charlie galore, along with the occasional stray sprays of grape hyacinth. Then there are small anonymous white buds and yellow buttercups that add more botanical frosting to the cake. Fortunately, none of them seems to mind very much when the mower passes over. I transplanted some, but I can’t catch them all.
It’s difficult to remember the drab grays and browns of winter, now that there’s so much color surrounding us. Yes, Henry, I agree with you that the weeds are beautiful. But I’m daily reminded of the words of another sage: TV’s Gomer Pyle, as played by Jim Nabors. It never took too much prompting for ol’ Gome to shriek, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!” I mimic him almost every day.
Amid all the recent tumult and speculation, it seems a good week to risk some contemplative thought, a quiet entry really. I’m brought to it by a passage from Thoreau’s Journal in April, 1854. Amid all the observations of pollinating plants, returning birds and first flowers (which reminds me of the current exhibition, (Early Spring: Henry Thoreau and Climate Change,) at The Concord Museum (see link below and more about this exhibit after I’ve visited), Thoreau is watching himself closely too. Not long before this date, he received the proofs for Walden, which will be published that summer, and here and there, we get glimpses of his passage through its pages.
Here’s one from April 8th: “I find that I can criticize my composition best when I stand at a little distance from it, — when I do not see it, for instance. I make a little chapter of contents which enables me to recall it page by page to my mind, and judge it more impartially when my manuscript is out of the way. The distraction of surveying enables me to take new points of view. A day or two surveying is equal to a journey.”
Ah, I say to myself, there’s the doublemeaning man of whom I’m so fond – the “distraction of surveying” is a wonderful phrase. Yes, he is away from the pages of Walden, and surveying’s measurements are surely distracting from the line-by-line review of what he has written. But only a mind as alive as Thoreau’s could see distraction in the exact angles of divvying land and imagining immaculate lines upon it. After a long day of snapping lines across the landscape, Thoreau seems freshly able to see his own lines of prose amid his book’s geography. To be distracted and so refreshed by close observation seems actually to be Thoreau’s method…of discovery…of living.
Here, from a day earlier is this observation: On the Cliff I find, after long and careful search, one sedge above the rocks, low amid the withered blades of last year, out, its little yellow beard amid the dry blades and a few green ones – the first herbaceous flowering I have detected.
A day or two of such surveying “at a little distance,” yielding, among other sights, “the little yellow beard amid the dry blades,” surely is “equal to a journey.” Are we not fresh-eyed when we return from our journey, having examined, say, the rough corrugation of a white pine or the torpid pose of a water snake waiting for the sun’s crawl to reach him? Do we not see more when we bend to survey our everyday words and work?
May we all “survey” and “journey” so.
The Concord Museum Exhibition Link:http://www.concordmuseum.org/concord-museum-early-spring-exhibition.php
Late afternoon and the gray, pillowed sky and gusting wind say there’s a cold front on the way. But as I walk to the river and its trails, the temps are in the low 70s, and the wind has no teeth. On this edgy day, with school cancelled and the extended city of Boston locked down, I need the air and the motion of walking.
It turns out that I also need the marsh marigolds that cluster newly blossomed on the bank of the flood plain; I need too the red-tail that drops from a white pine directly above near the trail’s beginning; his wing span as he glides over a small field is broad enough to summon comparison, and as I seek it, looking up into his white underside and fan of red at the tail, I see the thumb-sized, brilliant yellow shape of the first goldfinch. The hawk is gone; I walk out along the berm of the old railroad right of way, aimed for the breach that lets the river through.
But despite this wild-gilded entrance, my walk will not be about the riverine world. I carry with me the album of images from the past few days – mayhem in Copley Square, people scattering, and then the frozen likenesses of those sought for the bombings and those seeking them. And then there are the backstories, including the banal and eerie tweets from the man who began his news cycle as Suspect #2, his dark hair swelling from beneath a backwards, white ballcap.
Henry Thoreau thought a walk spoiled when he couldn’t outpace the town and its news, when his mind couldn’t shed them, and I suppose my walk can now be classed “spoiled.” But here amid the pines and oaks and along the blackwater river, I can exhale…My thoughts begin to arrive singly rather than as the bunched jumble of a website. I am wondering about announcement, about how we announce ourselves.
All announcement is imposition of some sort, even as it seeks linkage and affirmation with like others. A few birds are singing in this deep wood, announcing both territory and presence; it is both warning and invitation. If, as seems likely to me as I walk, some fanaticism lies behind these announcement-bombs, I wonder how the conviction took hold and deepened to the point where a whole unknown swath of people could become its aimpoints. How do people become so much the “other” that they are simply ways of announcing oneself…or one’s imagined divinity?
And then I begin to wonder about the odd, and, at times, hopeful experiment of having a country composed of immigrants, of forming a “we” from so many “others.” Surely, I think, as I turn along the far side of my loop and head back for the river, such a “we” avoids the problems of sameness, of monoculture of myopia. But amid the cacophony of announcement and the counter-currents of histories and beliefs what commonality do we sing?
In the floodplain the redwing blackbirds are squalling, and the sky has come lower and darker. They will nest; it will rain. I walk along slowly, almost slowly enough so that each step is singular. But at least there is space enough between my thoughts to count and consider them as I turn toward town, toward “we,” where it’s clear I’ll face these thoughts again.
By Corinne H. Smith
Near the end of his life, Henry Thoreau understood that his time was limited. He worked with his sister Sophia for more than a year to firm up some of his manuscripts for posthumous publication. He died in 1862. Four books — Excursions; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod; and A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers — were released soon afterward.
These details came to mind when I spied copies of two of these volumes on a shelf at Mullen Books in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I had started working at this used and antiquarian bookstore in March 2013. Naturally, as a Thoreau fan, I searched the store catalog for Henry’s name first. I was amazed to find originals of Cape Cod and A Yankee in Canada in stock. I touched them, opened them, and studied their markings. Both had come from Delaware and had interesting ownership stories to tell.
The Wilmington Institute purchased the copy of Cape Cod after it was issued in 1865. By then the Institute already had more than five thousand volumes in its collection. It also served as an education center for local tradesmen.
As the next century approached, the Institute became the Wilmington Public Library, a free service for all citizens. More and more people borrowed and read its books. Eventually, a librarian saw that Cape Cod looked a bit ragged. The book was rebound with a new durable blue cover. The words “Thoreau” and “Cape Cod” stood out on the spine. Then the book was ready to be circulated again, with a fresh face.
In 1944, local antiquities collector and benefactor Titus C. Geesey donated his 1866 edition of A Yankee in Canada to the Wilmington library. It still carried its original gold cloth cover. The spine credited Thoreau as “Author of Walden and A Week on Concord River.”
Library services continued to grow and expand. In the second half of the 20th century, Wilmington’s staff created a closed stacks section for its oldest books. The aging, original copies of Cape Cod and A Yankee in Canada were both relegated to these shelves. Fewer people had access to them now, though they could still be checked out upon request.
In the 2010s, the Wilmington library launched a “Library of the Future” capital campaign to renovate and update its facility and services. The old stacks section was due to be eliminated entirely. Regional museum representatives were invited to retrieve worthwhile titles from the collection, so that they could add them to their own. The library held at least one book sale, too. Finally, Pennsylvania bookseller Kevin Mullen was invited to scrutinize the shelves and to “rescue” and purchase as many volumes as he wished. Mullen spent nine days assessing the books and putting aside the ones he wanted. The copies of Thoreau’s Cape Cod and A Yankee in Canada were among the thousands of books that filled his truck as he drove back north across the border. He knew that whatever had been left behind at the library would soon be discarded.
Kevin’s employees spent months cataloging these new arrivals. Now it wasn’t just the contents that created value. It was a matter of condition as well as supply and demand. How many copies of each one were already on the market? What shape was each volume in? How much money would people reasonably pay for them? Descriptions and prices were entered into the store database. Cape Cod was offered at $150, A Yankee in Canada at $90. The details were published online. Anyone in the world who was looking for original Henry David Thoreau volumes could land on these entries.
Each time I catch a glimpse of these two books on the shelves, I can’t help but think and wonder. How many households did they visit? Whose hands held them? What did their readers think of Mr. Thoreau? Did any of them go on to read more of his writings? Were any of them inspired to later visit Concord, Massachusetts, and to see Walden Pond for themselves? Or Cape Cod? Or Montreal?
And what will be the next chapter to this story? Where will these books go from here? Like their author, these volumes have travelled a good deal throughout one locale. But it seems to me that they may have many more lives to live … and to touch.
This walk begins tentatively. Plenty of snow remains in these hills, and I wonder how a slow-healing tendon will respond on slippery uphills. Still, the winter-blue sky and the hundreds of story-rings from this 5-mile loop insist that I try. “Take short strides,” I say to myself. “Scuff your way up in the sun-softened snow.”
And, to reach Oregon Mountain’s top knuckle, I have done just this, booting along for the first few miles and then strapping on clawed snowshoes for the climb onto the ridge. Along the way my only company has been the meandering tracks of moose, who have been browsing the trailside brush and trees for their buds in this deep winter. Thin fare, I think, as I look at the spiky, gnawed-off branches and twigs.
So much in this 5-mile loop: the strata of a thousand memories, jumbled like quake-shot earth, one poking through here, another there; swirl of more memories beneath, a molten core; audible, in the heart of this pocket of wild, the chorused howls of wolves and wolf-hybrids from a sanctuary set there five years ago; to the north, the white triptych of Mt. Moosilauke, the Franconias and Mt. Washington, and along the Tenney Ridge and one a little farther north, the outsized stalks of wind turbines, their blades slowly rotating in the day’s northwest wind; and below the ledges, on the way down, losing the old trail in recent logging before faintly recognizing the little drainage that curves around the outlook and striking its path above Cream Hill.
For once, I have slung my camera around my neck and left arm, where it is accessible, making a small album of walking. These are the word-shots to go with them: snow-machine track for the first mile and half; the wolf-folk have hung on through another winter; where the sun catches it, the track’s soft; in the shade it’s icy. At the turn up the Old Dicey Road, my back is to the sun, which means the track is sun softened as it steepens – perfect for booting along; no need for snowshoes yet. This track is already reverting toward woods, even as the land around has been laid bare by two spates of logging in the last ten years; ten-foot high birch and poplar crowd the track to trail. The sky is a deep blue, the snow unsullied white. I am back.
On a sun-opened ledge, I prop myself against my pack and close my eyes. The northwest wind hurries by at about 20 mph, and the temperature must be in the 20s as well, but the April sun offers a perfect thermal balance; I drift off to the voice of that wind in the stiff firs that endure here on Oregon Mountain’s summit. Two thousand three hundred and one feet above sea level the sign says. Not exactly alpine, but here, on this seldom-visited ridge in midstate New Hampshire, I am finally “up there” after a long season of being down and away.
I awaken with a small start, prodded perhaps by the unlikely dream of a mountain lion. There they are, my home mountains, Cardigan and Firescrew, stone duo humped in the west, faces shot still with snow setting off their stubble of firs. What or who better to awaken to? Again…I am imprinted on these two. Should they stand suddenly and begin to walk west, or north, toward their brother and sister hills, I would follow.
Part of the pleasure of reading Henry Thoreau’s journals lies in their humdrum nature. Day after day, Thoreau gets up, goes about his day, takes his walk and records what he finds. He is, of course, an uncommon observer, but what he sees and hears each day is often common nature. Miraculous, yes, but there, everywhere, readily seen…if one will look.
On the first day of April, there is hum and drum to my walk as well. On my way to Fairhaven Bay via a loop around Walden Pond, I scuff the dry leaves and crunch over the last stretches of foot-beaten ice, ambling at an easy pace. The only hurried part of the world whistles by above the white pines; rumor of cold front is becoming word of arrival. The sky in the northwest is bruised.
But here at ground-level, where I live, the day is placid, and my middling mix of polar-tec top and shorts-clad legs seems the perfect arrangement. The pond, lightly-ruffled and glittering in its greens, is low, I note; the pondlet near the house site is separated from the main body by a dry ridge of ground. And, out in midpond, what look like small, rogue burgs of ice are really white-bottomed birds, too indistinct for my distance-fuzzed eyes to ID. Happily, given license, I deem them loons. Given kindreds, I walk on.
Beyond the pond, as I skirt the Andromeda Ponds, I hear my first chorus of spring; the peepers are singing sex; they are in riot along the eastern shores, where the direct afternoon sun slants in. I ease down near the swampy water, then close my eyes. The peepers insist; shrilling fills my ears; “hereherehereherehere…here,” they call, “here.”
What, I wonder as I walk on, is this hatch of insects? Black, winged and many, they are little meteors across my sightlines; I inhale a few, wave aimlessly at others. Do they know the cold front is on the way? It is a one-day life. It is. Though the water-snake I come upon stretched out in a slat of sun is thumb-thick and, even in his spring torpor, he looks like forever.
And now, along the cliffy stretch just downriver from Fairhaven, the front arrives. A gray sheet of rain wavers in the air, and whitecaps leap on the river. Is that thunder, tentative, unsure of its season? Yes, rumble, yes. No hum now, only drum. Here, amid the flying water, I pull over to follow its suggestion. The wind, all the waters, the flying air, the river in tumult, it makes me want to laugh.
Then he does…the laughing bird. A long ahahahahahah issues from the pine above. Ahahahahahahahahahahah. There he is – pileated woodpecker. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!
by Corinne H. Smith
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” ~ H.D. Thoreau, Walden
Last year when I read Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I found myself in its pages. I already knew that my personality tends naturally toward introversion. Cain’s ground-breaking book gives people like me a voice and validation. She’s getting lots of well-deserved publicity, too. Quiet has landed on many bestseller lists, and more than four million people have viewed Cain’s online TED talk. You can see that talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html.
Quiet is a book that I keep referring to in conversation and recommending to others. I know that reading it has enhanced my life.
I wasn’t the only person I recognized in Susan Cain’s descriptions, however. After all, introverts make up one third to one half of our population. So we’re apt to have a few in our lives, even if we aren’t introverts ourselves. In addition to several close friends and other family members, I was also strongly reminded of Henry David Thoreau.
Ms. Cain mentions Thoreau by name only once in her text. He joins the ranks of famous introverts who contributed worthy ideas and words to western culture. They include Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, William Wordsworth, Frederic Chopin, Marcel Proust, George Orwell, Dr. Seuss, Steven Spielberg, and J. K. Rowling. These individuals found that they could best channel their creative or problem-solving juices when given stretches of solitude.
Early in the book, Cain offers readers a 20-point quiz to gauge their own habits. You can take that quiz yourself at http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/quiet-quiz-are-you-an-introvert/. Here are the first four statements. Participants are asked to agree or disagree with them.
- I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
- I often prefer to express myself in writing.
- I enjoy solitude.
- I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status.
To me, these sentences sound as if they came straight from a Henry David Thoreau autobiography, or from some of the more introspective pages of his journal. The very traits that others have judged to be major defects – that this man didn’t seem to want to socialize with people much, and that he preferred being by himself in Nature instead – can be seen as concrete examples of his introversion. Skim through his writings, and you’ll find ample evidence of this. Two selections come to my mind:
“I feel the necessity of deepening the stream of my life; I must cultivate privacy. It is very dissipating to be with people too much. As C. says, it takes the edge off a man’s thoughts to have been much in society. I cannot spare my moonlight and my mountains for the best of man I am likely to get in exchange.” ~ Journal, August 2, 1854
“I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.” ~ Journal, December 28, 1856
I can relate to Henry’s experiences. I too have had times full of people who have “dissipated my days.” And I too have found it best at times to get away from them.
Categorizing individuals as introverts or extroverts would have been an alien concept to Thoreau, since it was first brought forth by Carl Jung in 1921. Susan Cain has expanded upon the topic and made it relevant to the general public. I highly recommend Quiet to every reader, and especially to those who long to think more deeply about Thoreau. His name may appear only once in Cain’s book, but the man himself seems evident throughout.
Ten days ago, I took clippers and crossed the then-bare ground to the fringe of brush that separates our yard from our neighbors. More winter snow was forecast for later in the week, and I wanted reminder of spring for when the white returned. There, in the untended bushes, I cut tight-budded sprays and whips of forsythia and brought them inside; I trimmed some winterkill and put them in a small pitcher of mild water. Then, I waited.
Days passed; the storm arrived, bringing with it the town plows, the new snowbanks, the shoveling; the yard went white…again. The juncos and chickadees and I communed by the birdfeeder. Often, when I passed the table where the pitcher and its stalky sticks were, I checked the buds, and a couple of times I refreshed the water. But like our recent winter, the buds weren’t budging; spring was stalled outside and in.
A few evenings ago, I burrowed into my pillow and dreams, a winter’s sleep even as the season tipped that night toward light; I rose in the morning to a longer day than the night I’d left and trundled out for the sunrise of coffee. I was greeted by a burst of yellow. The forsythia had bloomed overnight.
My mild seasonal mania for forcing forsythia is a gift from my father, who was fond of cuttings and bouquets in any and all seasons. Most of them came from fringes of fields and yards and woodlands rather than from gardens; they featured stalks of grass, sprays of juniper, flowering “weeds,” and, in their season, sprigs of the totem-blueberry (best of all ground-dwellers). Even as I join Henry Thoreau in my enthusiasm for getting out and walking to see what’s at work on any given day in the meadows and woods, I like also the reminder of where I’ve been (and will go again) atop the table in early spring.
A bouquet or spray of flowers is the habit of optimism, a looking ahead…though not too far: I am no futurist; I like to be present. But, even against the current of news and history, I am an optimist, at least under the influence of flowers, a believer in the yellow promise of spring.
The north-country is full of sweet rumor. Driving the backroads at this time of year, you look up from the challenge of deep mud and see occasional shacks or smallish barns billowing steam. Then, you roll down the window and breathe in the sweetened air. It’s sugar time in the woods.
Or, more accurately, sap time, and this year’s run of cold nights and sunny days, salted by occasional snows, has set up a classic season for maple sap and syrup. To be sure, most sugar-bushes look markedly different from their ancestors, whose trees featured gray metal buckets, slung from hooks beneath taps inserted into drill holes in those trees, the whole bush also laced with the tracks of trudgers (sometimes horses) dragging a collecting vat from tree to tree, gathering the sap. Today’s sugar bush is webbed with plastic tubing, often in bright colors, and these veins shunt the sap from tree to tree, ever-down toward a collecting point, often the sugar house itself, where they drip into containers prior to the boiling.
Still, the old buckets with their shallow triangular hats persist in places, often as small family operations that make syrup and sugar for personal use and gifts. These little sugarers, with steam rising from a shed out back or from a vent over the kitchen stove, are my favorites. They cast me back to when I was a little sugarer too.
In my early 20s, I spent a winter in a wood-heated, old farmhouse near the end of a dirt road in west-central New Hampshire. Uncertain about my future, I’d decided on a writing-winter, but really it had turned into a wandering winter, where my scripts were snowshoe tracks into the various corners of the valley and ridges above. I learned a lot and wrote little.
As spring neared, pails appeared on the row of maples that lined the dirt road. A farm family in town had asked for and received permission to tap these roadside trees, and, every so often, I began to lift the bucket’s lids and check on the sap levels. After a few days, I noticed that many of the buckets were full, and I figured the collecting truck, a sort of small tanker, would be there to gather the bounty soon. A day passed. No tanker. The buckets dripped steadily with overflow now eroding the collars of snow below.
Living at road’s end had made me a bit of a scrounge, and now I did what any good scrounge would do: I got a big bucket, took my ladle from beside the water-pump and began to skim ladlefuls from the overflowing buckets. This went on for some days, and by then, I had gallons of sap.
What to do? Time, surely, to fire up the cookstove and break out the broad turkey pan and do some boiling. I had a lot of wood, a lot of time, and, even when the tree-tapper emptied his pails, I soon had a lot of overflow.
For the next two weeks, I made syrup of varying intensities. Those who know anything about making maple syrup will recognize the oft-cited 40 to 1 ratio of sap to syrup. In short, it takes a lot of sap and boiling to make sweet immersion for your pancakes. What may be less known is the sweet world a room or house becomes if you do your boiling indoors. Saphouses are well-vented, outdoor enterprises for a reason.
Still, I got used to the always-sweet, humid air, and, aside from a little crystallized sugar on the beam above the stove, the old farmhouse seemed to adapt too. Entering the house from a day of woods wandering, or from some bucket-skimming was like coming into a large maple confection. And as the sap boiled down from water-clarity to various shades of amber, I began to eat only foods that called for syrup. I became, in short, a sort of sugar bear.
By March’s end, I had a couple of gallons of dense amber syrup. A few, hand-labeled quarts went for gifts. And, when I left the valley as spring came on, I carried the rest with me as the sweet writing of maples.
Today, a week into the changed sky of daylight savings, broke clear and cold. After days of melt, yesterday’s front had scattered a scrim of snow that purified the old drifts, and the returned cold had tightened them. Another day of winter, though one so fully lit as to deceive through the windows. But once I stepped outside and felt the air’s tensile strength, I knew winter was back, if only for a short stay.
“Before I go,” this day seemed to say, “think about the gifts a winter day brings. Instead of pining for spring, breathe in the immediate; consider the cold day.”
A while ago, during my winter reading of Thoreau’s 1854 journal, I’d come across paean to such a day:
To make a perfect winter day like this, you must have clear, sparkling air, with a sheen from the snow, sufficient cold, little or no wind; and the warmth must come directly from the sun. It must not be a thawing warmth. The tension of nature must not be relaxed. The earth must be resonant if bare, and you hear the lisping tinkle of chickadees from time to time and the unrelenting steel-cold scream of the jay, unmelted, that never flows into song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself; in the blue livery of winter’s band. It is like a flourish of trumpets to the winter sky. There is no hint of incubation in the jay’s scream. Like the creak of a cart-wheel. There is no cushion for sounds now. They tear our ears. – Journal, 2/12/54
Sure enough, the jay screamed; and the chickadees gathered in tiny riot around the birdfeeder; even in stripes where the sun had uncovered the grass, the ground was hard.
On my way to the woods, I stopped a number of times and listened. Thoreau was right – the was no “cushion for sounds now.” Each bird had immediate voice. A distant motor thrummed as if nearby. Somehow, as I walked on, I was nearer to the crunch of my steps. “The tension of nature” was surely not “relaxed.”
But the day changed, as the late season will, and during an afternoon walk, this little song of shift blew in. We were walking through an expanse of fields not far from the sea, and I was watching the clouds in the northeast. They boiled up dark, and the wind seemed to draw them on; from their bellies indistinct vapor seemed to trail. In summer that mist would be veils of rain. “That could be snow,” I said. And, some minutes later, it was – at first, one flake and another; then, a thickened froth. I could hear the little slaps on the left side of my face as the water-heavy flakes hit.
In two minutes, the upwind, left sides of our bodies were white like tree trunks facing a storm. We reached the car, shook off the snow and climbed in to watch the tantrum pass. The wind rocked the car, and from our inside eddy we watched the fields whiten like a time-lapsed photo.
Then it was done. Five minutes later the snow had melted; winter was whistling away, a whole season in a day. Oddly, there had been “incubation” in this flurried snow. The light in the sky was growing again; in a few days the vernal equinox would balance us before spring.
By Corinne H. Smith
Tradition holds that robins mark the return of Spring. When the month of March comes around, people begin to report with some glee of the robins they’ve spotted. The sight of these colorful birds yard-bobbing for worms assures us that winter is finally over. (Never mind that some robins now seem to stay with us year-round.) I used to believe in this myth myself.
But when I lived in Illinois, I noticed another, truer feathered symbol of Spring: the red-winged blackbird. Or more specifically, the males of this species. In late February or early March, these guys came north to stake out their territories. I would drive around the open prairie or through partial wetlands, and I would marvel at the sight. It was as if a delivery van had passed by, and someone had tossed out a bird every twenty yards. Individual male red-wings were perched in small trees, on fence posts, or hanging onto last year’s cat-tails. They distributed themselves evenly. Each one left just enough footage on either side so that he wouldn’t encroach on the neighboring birds’ spaces. When there were disputes, two blackbirds would be seen swooping at one another. By a certain time, however, all the land lining the Midwestern highways was claimed.
Henry Thoreau thought red-wings won the springtime coin toss, too. “No two have epaulets equally brilliant,” he noted on May 14, 1853. “Some are small and almost white, and others a brilliant vermilion. They are handsomer than the golden robin, methinks.”
When Thoreau embarked on his Journey West in 1861, he reached the Mississippi River in late May. There, he wrote in his notebook, “Red wing b. bird the prevailing to Mississippi R.” The birds would have been busy with their young by then. He still could have picked out their voices coming from the marshy edges of the riverbanks.
I wish I could mimic them. I can whistle like cardinals and chickadees, but I cannot recreate the call or song of the red-winged blackbird. There’s a buzzing in it that appears to be beyond human duplication. Thoreau was similarly intrigued. He defined the sound in his journal on April 22, 1852:
The strain of the red-wing on the willow spray over the water to-night
is liquid, bubbling, watery, almost like a tinkling fountain, in perfect
harmony with the meadow. It oozes, trickles, tinkles, bubbles from his
throat, — bob-y-lee-e-e, and then its shrill, fine whistle.
Twenty-first-century birders hear “conk-kar-ree,” “konk-la-ree,” or “o-ka-lay.” But to Mr. Thoreau’s ears, the red wing said “bob-y-lee-e-e.” Nevertheless: once you hear the sound and can link it to the bird, you’ll never forget it.
I recall clearly the March day when I was traveling through western New York. I decided to stop at Niagara Falls, just to watch the water. The main portion of the park was still closed for the season because of the thick ice and snow on the trails. Chunks of ice roared past us and quickly disappeared over the rim. It was mesmerizing to watch and try to follow one ice floe until it was lost from sight. As always, the waterfall was incredibly loud.
Suddenly I heard another sound, a more delicate sound, a sound I was familiar with. Yes, it was March, but was I merely imagining my bird of Spring? I looked around, wondering where a red-winged blackbird could be hiding. He turned out to be in plain sight, sitting at the top of one of the lone bare trees growing out from the rocks. And he was singing at the top of his lungs, competing with one of Nature’s largest sound-makers, streaming right behind him. I couldn’t help but smile and wish him a successful year. He sure chose a great place to raise a family.
Every year in early March, I fire up my computer and imagine my way to Alaska for what I see as the rite of spring. There, through the mountains, along the tundra and over the Yukon River’s thick ice, the dogs are running. These dogs are not the “Boses” that Henry Thoreau cites from time to time as further symbols of the habit-ridden town; these dogs are sled-dogs, dogs born to run, and this is their annual chance at the Iditarod, the world’s premier mushing event. Beginning just outside of Anchorage and aiming for thousand-mile distant Nome, the “last great race” supposedly replicates an early 20th-century emergency run to deliver diptheria serum to a town that might die without it. The mushers and dogs became heroes, and each year some 60 sled-dog teams and their drivers tap into that heroic spirit for their nine or ten or more days on the trail to Nome. Really, the race pays homage to the spirit of the various solitaries drawn to Alaska’s vastness and promise. In winter, the only way of travelling distances through this interior was by dog-sled.
Even as the dogs (who run best at around zero degrees) and their human companions press into Alaska’s marrow-chilling heartland, around here, crocuses often open their cupped hands to the sun.
This year, however, there’s an odd inversion at work. Today, we’re back in the land of horizontal snow while most of us pine for spring. Schools are cancelled, tennis nets recently raised in hope droop, the northeast wind drifts snow around five kayaks dragged near the Sudbury. Yesterday’s snow-in-the-air that wouldn’t stick has given way to the return of winter’s coat.
And, some five hours behind us in their day, this year’s dog-teams have hit the midpoint turn to the north along the Yukon, where…the temperatures have been in the 40s all night long. Yesterday, along sections of the trail, they flirted with 50 degrees. Even in my furless state, I can imagine that this isn’t great weather for the dogs with their winter-thick ruffs. The next time it’s 50-degrees here – will it ever be 50 again? – I can deepen my sympathy by layering on my parka and going for a run.
Still, the dogs look happy. The Iditarod’s website is rife with photos and videos of these running dogs as they arrive in teams of 12 or 16 at the various checkpoints – often hamlets of 40 or 70 people in Alaska’s roadless interior – and the dogs are the embodiment of life. If our lives are often quests to find what we “are meant to do,” here are some models, I think.
Long silly for dogs, I watch them lope along through winter’s fading landscape and see joy and possibility; they are the advent of spring.
By Corinne H. Smith
We recently moved into a 1950s ranch house in southeastern Pennsylvania. One of the lease requirements was that I maintain the yard for this corner-lot. No problem, I thought. I don’t mind mowing grass, raking leaves, or shoveling snow. Heck, I even enjoy doing such mindless tasks. They force me out into Nature and give me time to think. I gleefully signed the contract.
I didn’t notice one particular tree until a week or two later, when I literally stumbled onto its produce.
Most of our backyard is fenced in. But along one outside edge, a four-foot wide strip of grass lies next to a locally-busy street. Leaves and other natural litter were merging into the roadway there. So on a nice afternoon, I grabbed a rake and a few bags dedicated for “yard waste” and headed out to clean up. That’s when I discovered that all of the leaves had five narrow fingers, and that they were surrounded by hundreds of spiky seed balls. All this scatter had come from one of our trees. The annoying balls were everywhere. Walking here felt like skating on quarter-sized pincushions. I gathered up three bags full of the offspring of that one lone tree. Then I went inside and checked my field guides. It was a sweetgum tree. I’d seen them once or twice before, but I’d never lived close to one.
Two weeks later, after a long day of rain and wind, I was out there again. Those darn balls just kept on falling. I looked up. The sweetgum branches were leafless. But hundreds, if not thousands, of seed balls were still hanging on. I could see them silhouetted against the white winter sky. What a mess I was in for. Usually, I aim to keep an open mind when it comes to Nature and her bounty. But this seemed like a never-ending penance that I had unknowingly volunteered for.
In desperation, I turned to Henry Thoreau’s journal to see what observations he might have had about the sweetgum. Unfortunately, these trees are not natives to Massachusetts. Thoreau encountered them only in the fall of 1856, when he was undertaking a surveying job in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. There the sweetgum trees were “very common and large, oak-like,” according to his journal entry for October 27. “The fruit was a coarse, rigid, spherical bur, an inch or more in diameter, which opened and dropped much fine seed in my trunk.” Henry had it good. He didn’t have to collect any sweetgum seeds himself, because the darned spiked casings fell right into his own open receptacle. And since he was just visiting, he didn’t have to clean up anything afterward. Lucky man.
In sweetgum frustration, I looked online. The anonymous author of the Wikipedia entry was a kindred spirit: “The long-persisting fallen spiked fruits can be unpleasant to walk on; sweetgum is banned in some places for this reason. In abundance, they can leave a lawn lumpy.” No kidding. The neighbors who tip-toe along our part of the street can verify this.
Some enterprising folks sell batches of sweetgum balls online, I discovered. Crafty people use them in projects consisting of natural elements, like holiday decorations or handmade wreaths. Hey, maybe money does grow on trees! I could just pack up these seeds and send them elsewhere.
A benefit of the sweetgum finally appeared a few weeks later when a flock of colorful birds landed in our yard. The males had red bodies, and the females were greenish. They ran around and picked ferociously at the sweetgum balls still left on the lawn. My guide book identified these birds as white-winged crossbills, which I had never seen before. I watched them for at least an hour in fascination. I guess the sweetgum tree has fans after all. And I guess I should leave some of the seed balls in the yard.
For many readers, Henry Thoreau seems like an insistent finger, always poking and prodding, always wondering in a tactile way if you are awake. And some – I’m thinking now of those assigned readings in Walden or one of the essays – stir grumpily and follow along. Picture so many sleepy bears poked from what they hoped would be their long winter’s naps.
Poke: “But men labor under a mistake.” (Walden)
Prod: “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you lead…” (Walden)
Poke: “…lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility…” (Walden)
Prod: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.” (Walden)
Poke: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” (Walden)
And that is all within the first seven pages. “Whoa,” I recall a student saying early one semester, “the man should ease up.”
All of this assigned attention would, I imagine, mildly gratify Henry Thoreau; he was, after all, a writer who wished to be read. But over time, I’ve come to think of Henry’s finger as a pointer rather than a poker. Once we are awake and ambling along with him, he is forever pointing out what he sees and senses. And in that pointing Henry Thoreau becomes the teacher.
All of this came to mind the other day when I read an opinion piece written for The Chronicle of Higher Education by an Emory College professor (see link below). The essay was another lament about the preparedness of said professor’s students and the decline of secondary education brought on by what he saw as too much attention paid to narrative writing at the expense of its analytic cousin. O, the indignities this pro-fessor must now put up with. Perhaps he must teach.
My sympathy waned, however, when I noticed that the professor characterized himself as an “educator.” There, in a word, was the difference. True to the word’s root in the Latin verb ducere, to lead, this educator saw himself as leading students out – clearly leading them out of darkness and into the amply-lit spaces of his mind. He would educate; they would follow.
How different, I thought, from a teacher, who, true also to her or his word’s roots (the index finger is an old definition of the word), points out what s/he sees and often expects the student to create her or his own meanings from it. Here was Thoreau’s finger, pointing to all he encountered, to everything he saw and sensed and then asking in a hundred different ways, What do you think of this? What do you see?
Long after my student said “Whoa” and hoped that Henry would “ease up,” we emerged from the pages of Walden and that student looked up. “So,” he said, “the last thing Thoreau wants us to do is follow him.”
Exactly, I thought. Thoreau’s a teacher; if you wake up and walk with him for a while, he’ll point out what he sees. But he’ll insist also that you make your own meaning, lead yourself, finally, to your own life.
Link to the Chronicle of Higher Education article (Note: I found the responses more lucid and pointed than the article): http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/02/07/teaching-writing-through-personal-reflection-bad-idea/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en#
by Corinne H. Smith
On February 20, 1855, Henry Thoreau listed “the quadrupeds of Concord” in his journal. He named more than two dozen mammal species. The largest one he found was the Northern river otter.
This was not the first time that Thoreau outlined this group of animals. In his 1842 essay, “Natural History of Massachusetts,” he reminisced about encounters with muskrats and foxes. He was somewhat silent about the rest of the mammals said to be then living in the state. “The bear, wolf, lynx, wildcat, deer, beaver, and marten, have disappeared,” he wrote. “The otter is rarely if ever seen at present; and the mink is less common than formerly.” We can sense his dismay at having missed the chance to meet many of these creatures himself.
If we generated such a list today, we would come up with a number of animals that Thoreau never had a chance to see. Among them would be the afore-mentioned beaver and the white-tailed deer, but also the Eastern coyote.
Long-time saunterer J. Walter Brain has spent decades following in Thoreau’s footsteps, exploring the landscapes of both Concord and Lincoln. He recalls an afternoon when he was walking alone through the area behind Thoreau’s birth house and suddenly came upon a pack of at least a dozen coyotes. “They stood their ground,” he says. “They didn’t move. They didn’t make a sound. They just stared at me, the whole pack.” Walter backed up quietly, slowly, and deliberately, until he felt comfortable enough to turn away and head in another direction. It’s a memory that returns each time he passes through the neighborhood, even though the encounter took place at least fifteen years ago. He hasn’t seen coyotes there since. But his experience has led him to claim that the area framed by Old Bedford Road, Virginia Road, and Hanscom Field is “the wildest part of Concord.”
Coyotes are not strangers to us. Researchers with the Cook County Coyote Project in Illinois (http://urbancoyoteresearch.com) say that coyotes generally go unnoticed but live all around us: especially in the suburbs, in drainage ditches near shopping centers, and at the edges of overgrown acreage. On most occasions, we co-exist without interaction or interference. It is the rare rogue coyote that will attack a human. Unfortunately, when this happens, the whole species tends to be unduly blamed because of the actions of a few. Coyotes can get an unwarranted bad rap.
You don’t have to trek out to the American prairie or plains to hear coyotes at night. Wildlife illustrator and printer Abigail Rorer once told me that she enjoyed hearing the barks and yips from the pack that lives close to her home in Petersham, out by the Quabbin Reservation on the western edge of Worcester County. She wished she knew what they were doing, and what they were saying to one another.
Because coyotes are crepuscular and appear most often at dusk and dawn, it’s rather unlikely that hikers will encounter them in the acreage behind the Thoreau birthplace in Concord. Instead, you’re apt to find mere paw prints in the mud. No worries.
And yet: “We need the tonic of wildness,” as Henry wrote. He spent many hours walking this same territory, in search of The Wild. Is it enough to know that we share this place with such creatures as coyotes? Or must a gray shadow slip past us in order for us to believe it? Should we long to be confronted with it eye to eye, as Walter once was?
I am happy enough to merely know of and to hear; I find it not necessary to experience. Still, I think Henry Thoreau would have sought the animals out. And he’d have been pleased to include “Canis latrans, Eastern coyote,” on his list of Concord’s quadrupeds.
My ongoing tracery of Thoreau’s winter of 1854 has carried me to this short-long month in the season’s belly. Like our current winter, 1854′s featured some wild swings – from thaw to freeze, with one morning reading of -19 degrees, from long blue horizons to thick snows, and from walking the winding river to trailing along reading’s lines. And early February of ’54 also contained detailed entries about Thoreau’s gleanings from one Ephraim Jones’ hundred-year-old ledgers, a record of Concord’s wilder days when farmers and hunters still traded wildcat pelts, among other items. Thoreau read and recorded from these ledgers avidly.
As I’ve read through his days, (I’m now some two weeks behind the rush of our current year; I am in no hurry), I’ve noticed how readily Thoreau shifts from the findings of his daily walks to those from his daily readings. A mink’s prints along the riverbank lead to words drawn from Varro…and those words lead back out into the woods where a rabbit’s curious pauses suggest that he may have “whirled around.” Even as he walks abroad, Thoreau burrows into and pulls up lives from the past in these books and ledgers: “Hezekiah Stratton has credit in 1743, ‘Feb. 7 by 1/2 a Catt skin 0-1-4 1/2,’ of course a wildcat.”
“Of course a wildcat.” What, I wonder, does it take to bring a wildcat to life from an old ledger? What quality of imagination finds life equally in a line of prints and the print of a line?
“Howitt says that in Britain ‘the law is opposed to tracking game in a snow.’ I feel some pity for the wild animals when I see how their tracks betray them in calm weather after a snowstorm, and consider what risks they run of being exterminated.
Is not January alone pure winter? December belongs to the fall; is a wintry November: February to the spring; it is a snowy March.
The water was several inches deep in the road last evening, but it has run nearly dry by morning. The illustrious farmer Romans who lived simply on their land, to whom Columella refers are Q. Cincinnatus, C. Fabricius, and Curius Dentatus.” Journal, 2/9/54
Wild animals, thaws and snows, Roman farmers – they are all alive together in the terrain of this mind whose tracks line the page before me; this afternoon, I will go look to see what has passed along the river before the next storm blows in.
What are you seeing and reading, these winter days? Who’s alive in your mind?
By Corinne H. Smith
“The question is not what you look at but how you look & whether you see.” ~ Thoreau’s journal entry, August 5, 1851
One January day, I put water in the kettle and turned up the heat. While I waited for the boil, I stared out of the kitchen window at nothing. It was a cloudy winter afternoon, and the back yard was shaded in tones of brown. Brown trees grew out of brown grass in front of a brown-gray fence. A pile of brown leaves and compost stood nearby. Soon I would be slurping my hot brown tea to ward off the brisk brown chill.
A flash of brown and white dropped from a tree. It was a hawk, aiming for his lunch. “Wow, a hawk!” I cried to my father. “Come here, quick!” But the guy outside must have missed whatever prey he was after, because he quickly flew out of view, with empty talons. My father wasn’t fast enough. “Never mind, he’s gone now,” I said, as Daddy came up behind me. “He was a big one, though.”
My father and I were newly reunited, and we were still learning each other’s habits. I had been teaching him about hawks, my favorite birds. I love to drive around and spot them sitting in trees, especially at this time of year, when no leaves impede their view, or mine. A few days earlier, I had gone out of my way to pull our car into a convenience store parking lot, just to show my father the beautiful red-tailed hawk who was perched on the gasoline price sign. Hundreds of oblivious others just drove past. My father was getting used to hearing, “Look, there’s a hawk! See it?”
I filled my brown teapot and resumed my window post. I hoped the hawk was still in the area, and that we’d get another chance to see him. Sure enough, there was an extra glob of brown out there. The hawk had returned, and he was sitting on our wooden fence. I called my father back. It took more than a minute of my pointing and explaining for him to see the hawk. But he did. And then the bird took off again. He was magnificent.
Someone in my past used to needle me because I was always saying, “look and see.” He maintained that the two words held exactly the same meaning, and that I was therefore being forever redundant. I could never quite convey to him just how different the concepts of “look” and “see” are. Henry Thoreau certainly knew the distinction. Anyone can LOOK by directing her eyes toward an object. To truly SEE something requires perspective, position (location and opportunity), patience, and practice.
Weeks later, as I put the finishing touches on this post, I walked out to the kitchen again to get more tea. My eyes were drawn back to the window while my cup was circling in the microwave. I was thinking of the hawk and wondering where he’d gone. Just then I realized that he had come back! Again, he was sitting on our fence, right where we’d seen him before. Now it didn’t take as long for my father to find him, and we even had enough time to grab the binoculars and bird identification books. But not the camera. Next time, for sure. And the next time we may also be able to verify that our visitor is a broad-winged hawk.
We spend most of our waking hours passing through familiar territory: our homes, our cars, our commute routes, our schools and workplaces. We know these landscapes so well that we need only to glance at their edges in order to sleep-walk along their paths and through our routines. But what’s beneath these surfaces? What’s using camouflage to blend in with its environment? What are we missing, day after day? .
“To be awake is to be alive,” Thoreau told us. Stop. Look. Go beyond the familiar. Scrutinize. Open yourself up to further possibilities. You may very well see something remarkable. A hawk may be waiting.
“Feb 4. F. Brown showed me this afternoon his game killed day before yesterday — a gray hare, a gray squirrel and a red squirrel…The gray was a fine large fellow in good condition; weighed one pound and a quarter…and his tail still perfectly and beautifully curved over his back. It recovered its place when you stroked it, as if it were full of electricity.” Henry Thoreau, Journal, 1854
A number of years ago, when wolf-advocacy groups were first making their case for this canid’s return to our region, I went to a lecture (and showing) by Wild Sentry at the Thoreau Institute. The talk took place in a crowded central hall (there must have been around 100 people there), and it treated the audience to various arguments and facts for this topline predator’s recovery or restoration in the ungulate-heavy woods of the northeast. But most of us were already persuaded of this need, and so we were there for the star of the show, a wolf rescued and sheltered by the presenters. He would descend the central staircase after the talk; in an odd cultural inversion, it would be a “runway moment.”
For this evening, I was carrying a local press pass, and so I got a few moments behind the scenes. Outside, before the talk, I met Koani, a 100-pound, 6-year-old black wolf. By now an experienced “ambassador,” Koani still seemed a little uncertain about the hand I extended so she could sniff it. But then, after a long sniff, she raised and stretched out her right paw to ask for a pat. Long silly about dogs, I was delighted. And, as I ran my hand along Koani’s back, I was surprised – the fur beneath my palm was wiry and stiff; it was unlike any fur I’d patted before. There, in the dark, I had my hand on a wildness that had been absent from New England since the last wolf in Maine was killed in 1909. “Welcome back,” I said.
This moment came back to me while reading Thoreau’s journal and the entry excerpted in this posting. Thoreau is always reaching out with his hands, picking up this pinecone, examining that flower, and here, when presented with a squirrel’s tail “still perfectly and beautifully curved over his back,” Thoreau strokes it. And “it recovered its place…as if it were full of electricity.”
All of this reminds me what it is to be in touch with the world. Today, while I walked, it reminded me to run my hands over the rough, corrugated bark of a large white pine.
Odd Note about Touch: Once I’d written this posting, I did what I often do when I’ve referred to a group or a program – I googled them. At the top of a list of results, I found a movie, True Wolf…that Pat Tucker and Bruce Weide, the two people of what they called “their pack” – themselves, a wolf (Koani) and a dog – have made about their experiences teaching people about wolves for 16 years. Here’s the link: http://www.truewolfmovie.com/
Official Movie Poster – True Wolf
It’s a cloudy February day in the aftermath of another storm. A uniform gray bathes the campus where I work; pallor sets up in every face; the snow squeaks underfoot. “When is spring?” I hear a student wonder. Spring seems as distant as the summer past. Then the sun comes.
I’m walking, hunched against the cold, between classes when its light arrests me. I look up at the sun’s disc over our administration building, aware for a moment that this could be the beginning of some saccharine school story, and at the precise angle of our meeting, I feel warmth. I turn to face the sun more squarely, and, in the folds of my dark scarf, a tiny riot of heat spreads to my neck. I smile and walk back toward the building I’ve just left.
To the left of the doors, there’s a stone ledge stretching beneath the hallway windows, and where the Ceramics Studio juts left, there’s an oblique-angled corner. I go there, strip off and make pillow of my coat and sit down on its softness. Cupped by the corner, I lean back and resume relations with the sun; I close my eyes and feel the sun’s palm spread warmth across my face, along my scarf to my chest. Palmy dreams begin.
The school bell jars me; I look up to a few quizzical faces on the path ten yards away. Have I been talking in my sleep, ordering, perhaps, a tropical drink, humming softly a Jimmy Buffet tune? The students walk on, away from this momentary curiosity. I am sun addled, but to them I’m perhaps a small pocket of weirdness on the way to lunch. Reverie returns, bringing Henry Thoreau with it.
Thoreau, when confronted by the vital daily question of where he should walk, often paused at his door and waited for the needle of his heart’s compass to settle; more often than not, that needle pointed southwest. I take heart that this writer I’ve followed for years was drawn in the sun’s direction. But the secret to a winter sun-spot lies equally in the direction not faced, the northeast. Our most punishing winds originate there, and this corner puts a whole building between me and winter’s wind channel.
My spot is all sun, and, aside from our bell’s metal reminder of who I am and my schedule, here I can drift on the little raft of my mind. Here I can shift seasons, book passage, swim out of season.
I’m guessing that many of you have your February sun spots too.
“But the winter was not given to us for no purpose. We must thaw its cold with our genialness. We are tasked to find out and appropriate all the nutriment it yields. It is a cold, hard season, its fruit, no doubt is the more concentrated and nutty…The winter was made to concentrate and harden and mature the kernel of his [man's] brain, to give tone and firmness and consistency to his thought. Then is the great harvest of the year, the harvest of thought…Now we burn with a purer flame like the stars; our oil is winter-strained.” Henry Thoreau, Journal, 1/30/54
Late last evening, as the core of our big snow arrived, I sat by the window and watched the stream of white flow horizontally through an illuminated cone cast by a klieg light. It was mesmerizing. When the wind blew hard and steady from the northeast, the flakes became a river, boiling by, seeming even to curl over and around unseen stones in the air; but then, when the wind paused, spun sometimes on its heels, the snow whirled too, scattering like embers shot from a popping fire, or those running from some place of riot.
Minutes into this reverie, I saw a dark body shoot through the lit patch…and then another. Two birds, though what sort I couldn’t tell. And wasn’t it rather late, I wondered; shouldn’t they be puffed up and perched in some dense conifer, sheltering from this storm?
In the morning’s still-dense snow, I saw tentative answer. A flock of over-wintering robins was in a rank of wild cherry trees, whose concentrated berries clung still to the branches. The robins ate facing into the gale, sometimes floating back off their branches during gusts, seemingly at home in the wild air. And then, one, two, three streaked by that same window to a thick tangle of trees knit together by the invasive bittersweet. Perhaps bittersweet is an approved second course after cherries.
But the cherries, which often draw cedar waxwings in the fall, have been there untouched all through this open winter. Were they being banked for such a season-closing storm? Perhaps.
Later, I would go out for the ritual uncovering of path and cars, for the close sound of the snow-stirring wind and the tick and rattle of ice crystals on my parka. But for some minutes, I watched the birds moving between these two berries and thought back to the night’s pouring river of snow. I hadn’t harvested any great thoughts, but the way the roaring river of wind had carried the snow seemed akin to “a purer flame like the stars.” My mind seemed to draw upon an oil that felt “winter-strained,” and both these robins and I seemed intent on finding the nutty fruit of a “cold, hard season.”
And you, what appeared to you through the curtains of our big snow?
“I knew a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit one Sunday and, taking up the hymn book, remarked: ‘We have had a good fall for getting in corn and potatoes. Let us sing Winter.’ So I say, ‘Let us sing Winter.’ What else can we sing and our voice be in harmony with the season?” Henry Thoreau, Journal, 1/30/54
Sometimes, I feel like that crazy man.
The buzz (a sort of song) begins days in advance. For me, the mix of modern forecasting tools and work at a school ensures rumor’s percolation well before any storm coalesces off the mid-Atlantic, where our biggest, our “historic” snows all come from. Prediction of snow makes us all ten again.
None more so than my friend, Don. Yes, Don has professional reason for his weather-eye (he is in charge of our school’s plant and emergency preparations), but his weather-heart is that of a kid. Last fall, when my eponymous hurricane was making its approach to catastrophe along the mid-Atlantic, I received a series of e-mails tracking and speculating…about me. To defend myself, I had to resort to verse:
963 (my central pressure)
…I got it all goin’, me wind is up,
I got de spin, me cheeks is bowin’.
What you gonna do when de wind start blowin’…
o, donnie donnie k, gon blow you plans all away.
…forecasters now got me goin’ to new jersey,
but I ain’t goin’ dere, dem guys is crazy;
I comin’ to see you in you Concord place,
we gonna play wit de roofs and play wit you face.
This week my inbox began the beep and chatter again. “This could be epic,” began one e-note, anticipating a Boston.com headline by days. Power-point summaries and a thick accumulation of links followed – not that I needed much prodding to begin my own cyber-sleuthing of the oncoming storm’s formation. Long before the word “blizzard” was broken out by weather’s officialdom, I’d begun to envision horizontal snow and car-shrouding drifts.
“Let us sing Winter,” I wrote back, hoping to annoy Don by quoting Thoreau, and I began my wait for winter to sing back. But, like any true ten-year-old, I was antsy with anticipation, and so, tiring of hectoring Don with minute-by-minute e-mails, I took myself out for a walk along the river. It was cold, but only the faintest flow of air reinforced that cold when I turned north. Skim ice had edged back out toward the river’s current after the recent thaw, and the water was winter-black, its swirls had the thickness of oil. Only the riverside ice and frozen pools in shallow depressions retained a scrim of snow; they shone white in the leaf-brown landscape. Saplings had on their clerical collars of ice, and in one waterside thicket, a flash of red said, “cardinal.” As close to religious sanction as I get, I walked on, the only sound the scuffing of winter-tired leaves underfoot.
As often happens during such walks, my inner-child gave way to a more contemplative self, and I was mulling over this easy, open winter and its variations, even as tomorrow it would put on its usual white coat. Near walk’s end, along the old railroad grade that approaches the vanished bridge over the Sudbury, a flood of sunlight slipped through a slat in the clouds, and, almost immediately, the little sunbank was alive with birds. “Juncos,” I thought. But then a chip of color flew by and lit on a nearby branch; I looked more closely: skyblue back, ruffous breast. Bluebirds. Heart of summer sky. Beyond their winter range, but assuredly here.
These blue reminders piled up against the predicted storm, a mash-up of seasons. I sat down in those few minutes of sun and listened to the bluebirds overturning leaves, scuffling I guessed for cold-slow insects and wondered about the way our days contain so many weathers. And I walked back wondering also where these bluebirds would be tomorrow, when, if Don and his prophet NOAA are right, the snow will be above my knees.
Perhaps I am a crazy man. Surely I have trouble sorting the silly from the serious, just as our seasons seem uncertain of themselves too.
Still, “Let us sing Winter.”
We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected…Such is oftenest the young man’s introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind. (“Higher Laws,” Walden)
Ground Hog Day – a good day to look beneath the surface and see what stirs.
As a boy, I learned to shoot a rifle. It was a single-shot .22 caliber gun with a wooden stock, and its sighting was skewed to the right. But I learned to compensate, and I learned to quiet my breathing so that the barrel and I were still as I squeezed the trigger. Some fifty yards away, the old water-filled soda and beer cans I favored as targets, jumped with impact more often than not. A little later, a summer as a counselor’s aide provided my final training as I shot my way through various levels of targets courtesy of the NRA. When fully focused, I could punch the center out of my targets with a tightly-bunched cluster of shots. By August, I had won a clutch of patches and was a sharpshooter. But already, the lure of guns was waning; even as a fourteen-year-old I’d begun to see animals as fellow beings and not wild impulses to be “tamed” by lead.
Let’s go back to my twelfth year, where this began. I awaken early on a July day, and the slightest light seems to hang in the net of fog draped in this heavy New Hampshire air. I slip from the room without disturbing my brother and ease down the stairs, avoiding their creaky centers. It’s a little before 5:00 a.m.; I’ll eat when I get back.
From behind the living room door, I take the single-shot .22 that came with this old farmhouse my parents went into hock for two years ago. Already this mountain valley and its ridges are becoming foot familiar. And already I’ve learned that many animals are in motion during the hours that fringe these long summer days. I am hunting porcupine, which I’ve been told are tree-girdlers and general bad citizens; there is a fifty-cent bounty on them. My dog has already gotten two snoutfuls of quills. Clearly, he is a slow learner. Just as clearly, this valley needs “cleaning up.”
Some thirty minutes up the old, abandoned road that once went over the mountains to Hebron, I catch movement in my peripheral vision. There, some forty feet up in a maple is my quarry, a hunched shape against the rising light in the sky. I am elated and confused. I’ve found what I am hunting, a primal thrill; I must now hunt – aim and pull the trigger? I’ve never done this before. It feels vaguely worrying. Unused to such ambiguity, I do what a twelve-year-old boy does – I act. It takes four shots to bring the porcupine down, and even as he falls, I feel a flush of shame wash through me. Now what? I stand twenty feet away from his body for long minutes, unable to will myself forward. Finally, I settle on burial and digging and scraping with a stick take more long minutes; I become aware that I am crying. During the walk downroad and home, the whole forest feels sad.
That, having been spared service in a war, is the last time I aimed a rifle at a breathing being. Two years later, I shot a rifle at a target for the final time, and my NRA membership lapsed. Fifty years later, I sign petitions and watch debate and revulsion about guns swell in response to the serial horror spewed from their barrels. And I wonder: are not we meant to evolve, as Henry Thoreau proposes in his difficult chapter, “Higher Laws,” over a lifetime? Should not each life in some way mimic the long walk toward a brother-and-sisterhood with our world’s beings, a taming of the hunter, who first walked out of Africa long millennia ago?
by Corinne H. Smith
In the fall of 1847, Henry Thoreau closed the door on his house at the
edge of Walden Pond and left this sanctuary because he “had several
more lives to live.” During the decades that followed, other frugal
Yankees of Concord dismantled the wooden structure (which Thoreau
himself had recycled from a railroad worker’s hut) and used its pieces
to repair or enhance a variety of buildings in town. Its fragments
were scattered so well – like the seeds of a wind-blown dandelion –
that authentic re-assembly of the original home could never take place.
But Thoreau’s literary and inspirational reputation escalated during the 20th century. Along with this attention came the symbolism found in the image of that simple house in the woods. Readers longed to have one of their own, perhaps even one made from “tall, arrowy pines.” Thanks to amateur archaeologist Roland Robbins and Thoreau’s own written details, blueprints became available so that anyone, anywhere, could construct a Walden house. We hear of them standing in various locations from around the globe.
Henry Thoreau never set foot in western Pennsylvania. He came to within 275 miles of this area only twice: when he lectured in Philadelphia on November 21, 1854; and when he traveled across New York State in May 1861, on his way to Minnesota. Yet a new connection now links Thoreau with this place. A Walden house replica was recently built by students at the Altoona campus of The Pennsylvania State University.
The school is on the northwestern edge of Altoona, a city of 46,000 residents that lies among the Allegheny Mountains. The campus has always had strong ties to the nature surrounding it. Tall trees tower over the paths between academic buildings. A reflecting pond is home to a variety of ducks, who are the unofficial but beloved mascots of both current students and alumni alike. In 2008, Penn State Altoona bought 40 acres of adjacent woodland, including a hill that rises 300 feet above the campus. This tract is now known as “Seminar Forest.” Environmental studies students created hiking and mountain biking trails that lead to its summit and to an outdoor classroom at the top. At the foot of the hill and next to the posted trail map stands their new Walden house.
Its appearance is similar to the one that Thoreau constructed near a cove at Walden Pond in Concord in 1845. But there are noticeable differences. Instead of “three chairs for society,” the interior design of this house includes built-in wooden benches along three walls. Instead of a body of water lying outside, there’s a nearby hand-driven water pump. Instead of a rail commuter line with cars that speed toward Boston, a two-lane road leads “up the mountain” to Wopsononock, a high overlook that is peppered with radio towers and is a popular parking spot for young people.
I lived in the Altoona area for fifteen years. Thanks to professors Sandra H. Petrulionis and Ian S. Marshall, I recently had a chance to return and chat with the students about Henry Thoreau. We were due to meet at the Walden house at noon. I walked over early to take in the atmosphere before the others arrived. What a peaceful site! And yet, it wasn’t too far away from the school. I could hear the Winchester chimes of the chapel carillon ring on each quarter hour. At the stroke of noon, the melody of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” wafted through the air. If I went to school here, I’d spend as much time as possible in this natural place.
As I admired the autumn foliage and gazed up the hill, I was reminded of something Thoreau wrote in the “Tuesday” chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He recalled the moment when he once stood upon Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, and looked down upon Williams College:
“It would really be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain, as good at least as one well-endowed professorship. It were as well to be educated in the shadow of a mountain as in more classical shades. Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.”
Mirroring Thoreau’s suggestion, this college campus now has its own mountain. Kudos to the Penn State Altoona administration and students for recognizing the value of this natural setting. It’s the perfect place to put Henry’s house.
Note: the core of this entry comes from an essay “You Have to Be Here – Teaching Thoreau in Concord,” published in the Winter/Spring issue of Appalachia, which features a number of pieces about Thoreau and his influence. Link: http://www.outdoors.org/publications/appalachia/
Martin Luther King Day always makes me think about freedoms, the ones we take for granted and the ones we see as threatened. Famously, King had a dream about freedom, and, almost as famously, he had a method for approaching freedom. That he traced some of this method of civil disobedience to Henry Thoreau is equally well known. When my students and I read Walden and its meditation on freedom and enslavement, and then read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and On Civil Disobedience, I ask us all this question: We go out with our freedom for what? Thoreau wrestles with this question throughout his work, saying at one point, “Don’t just be good; be good for something.”
While this question arrives early in the semester, as the term ages, we return to it, especially when we reach the end of Thoreau’s Walden “experiment,” (he is insistent on using this word in its scientific fullness; Walden itself can be read as a sort of poetic lab report) and consider his landmark essay, “On Civil Disobedience.”
Early in Walden, Thoreau launches a startling comparison: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” I read this aloud and look out over the class. They have all taken a required and demanding United States history class; they are versed in the long nightmare of slavery and its ongoing effect on relations in our country. They have read Thoreau’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass, and his story of self-liberation, first from illiteracy and then from his southern overseer. “What do you think of that?” I ask.
“Pretty easy to say for a free white man who gets to go home for dinner whenever he wants,” says Percy, giving summary voice to generations of readers nettled by Thoreau’s finger-pointing and crowing and what seems to them posing. But here we are at the heart of Thoreau’s moral universe, and in “Civil Disobedience” he works to answer Percy’s charge. What should he, a free, white man, do in his era, when he saw slavery as its primary metaphor and evil? His answer is complex, and we wrestle with its various reasonings as we read his essay that has rippled beneath and through protest and change movements around the world. “So different,” says Charlotte of the writing. “Where’s the nature, the pond looking back at him, the friendly pine needles, the neighborhood animals and misfits?”
“It’s true,” I think and say. “The language of ‘Civil Disobedience’ is moral and mechanical. “Let’s look at his advice about response to society’s machinery when its turns unjustly.” We turn to a midpoint in the essay and Tessa reads aloud: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine.”
“What would that look like?” I ask in the quiet that follows.
“Heat and pain,” says Adam, and physics students chime in with friction’s characteristics, describing the burn of being rubbed the wrong way, or, at length, any way at all. While Thoreau was facile with machinery—see his family’s pencil business and Thoreau’s improvements to it—he did not love its promise as central to whatever improvements or revolutions might better people and this world. For that hope he turned to the individual. And part of Thoreau’s appeal to high school students is their kindred feeling that they, with their questions and insights, should be and are counterfriction to the machine of the societies they will inherit.
“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” Thoreau writes in the Higher Laws chapter of Walden, and once you are awake to this perception, prodded perhaps by the insistent finger of his prose, life gets complicated. I look out over my classroom, full of both privilege and promise. Bent to their books, bowed some by the work of becoming, they are, even in their wearied states, inspiring.
Like Thoreau, I have put much of my faith in a better world in the “I” each one represents, and in what each may do with her or his freedoms.
Thaw – the thermal yo-yo rises. This morning the air is still and grey and the remaining snow looks like shucked-off clothing. Along the winter-black river, the ice that was edging out into the current has pulled back, and the ice-collars on the waterside trees drip drip drip.
Even Mt. Washington, where a few days back the wind-chill dropped below -50 degrees farenheit, is melting. I look at the water-thick air through the lens of one of the mountain observatory’s weather-cams – more grey; everything running downhill.
As happens to those whose 3rd-eye is turned always to the weather, I begin to wonder about this warmth, linking it reflexively with the daily stories of climate change, the warming that spreads out from our bodies and intent. And, as corrective, I remind myself again of the gulf between the immediate weather and the climate, that I would be a ninny to attribute daily variation to global shift.
And yet as a creature of the immediate, given global information, I can’t help but make this linkage. Perhaps that’s one reason why, as a sort of time-spanning outrigger, I read for balance a little each day from Thoreau’s journal. Right now, I’m following along through January, 1854, and the 159-year straddle across days brings me to this:
Jan. 13. Still warm and thawing, springlike; no freezing in the night, though high winds…These thawing days must have been to some extent lichen days too.
Yes, it’s January’s thaw, New England tradition, and in that year there are two within January’s first two weeks; and in this false spring, Thoreau is out and about, looking closely at what stirs and what is revealed. Just as in the middle of a snowstorm, we pay attention to the snow, its shapes and swirls, lose sight of what it covers, now we see what presents above it as it shrinks – the dark tree-bark, the tan grasses, the grey-green lichen, the junco gleaning seed, the black specks of snow fleas. I am drawn into the little lives of the day. And in this fascination, I am free for a while from my large, time-hopping mind’s global habits.
And you, what do you see when the snows recede?