A blog at Thoreau Farm
written & edited by Sandy Stott
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” –Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
I love to sit in the wind on this hill and be blown on. We bathe thus first in the air; then, when the air has warmed it, in water. Thoreau, Journal, 5/15/53
Every so often the daily trail morphs into a multi-day way; I suppose that’s the difference between walking and traveling. Anyway, some upland research will take me to the White Mountains for a few days, where spring is much more various than our coastal version. The green “fur” of budding trees colors the valleys, but, even in this year of absent-winter, there’s still some ice up high. There the buds hold tight, waiting for warm air. So going uphill is going back in time, if only a little way. And then, from up high, you look down and see spring flooding into the valleys, working its way higher on the ridges, coming your way again.
Shuffling off into this various time feels contemplative – as the world hurries to announce itself, I slow down. Perhaps that’s what spring fever is, a little lassitude thrown in with all this springing up. At a time when green seems to gallop, I tend toward amble, and that may also be because the days stretch toward solstice. The light’s in under the shade before 5 a.m. and it lasts past 8 p.m. It’s enough to make me feel the stir of my Scottish ancestry, where short summer nights are only versions of twilight.
And that little stir creates a doubleness of sorts, and kind of here and there of self. Which, as I think of it, may be like molting, a mixed state of old and new, all in service of later flight. Flight is, of course, a project for a whole or complete being; no little bit of this feather or that one for a flyer – the whole set’s needed to parse and ride the wind. And now that I’m imagining feathers and flight, I know it’s not molting but rather fledging I have in mind.
In a million nests, one of which occupies the twig-wreath by our front door, the next generation of flyers grows its feathers. Even a glance at the nest every so often points to the race taking place within – will the feathers form before the nestlings jostle each other out of the now too-small nest? Will the parents, who must be down more than a pint of energy, be able to keep up the steady stream of bugs and other bits of food that build the feathers? Our house finches probably wonder this each day. It will be close.
In a few days, when I return from the mountains, it’s likely we’ll be changed, the birds and I, winging suddenly into our fully-leafed summer lives. Every spring a fledgling; every summer on wing. That’s the hope our finches offer.
“The lady’s slipper in the pitch pine woodside near J. Hosmer’s Desert, probably about the 27th.” 5/30/56, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner.
I’m on my way home when I see the season’s first orchid. It’s a day or so before it reaches the showy-phase with its white-pink slippers tipped just so, but the two splayed, glossy leaves and the rising neck, with its bud shy seeming, are enough; almost enough to make me camp here and wait for their flower. Almost.
Instead, I’ll return tomorrow, and, as I go south into the deeper woods and reach the pitch pine plain at their core, I’ll get orchid eyes, the eye-set that lets me see these rare plants everywhere. The forest floor is eruptive green at this time of year, and all those greens are fresh and appealing. And its daubs of white, wildflowers draw the eye too, but I await especially the lady slippers, which people the woods like…people.
Some rise in clusters, and in years past in each of my circuits of Concord’s Estabrook Woods, I knew where to look for these tiny towns or tribes. One in particular grows near the two-mile marker, a waist-high granite post as you walk south along the Old Carlisle Road. From there it’s two miles to our revolution’s “rude bridge that arched the flood,” though during most springs, it has both feet in the flood – no dry-shod revolutionaries these days. Each spring somewhere between ten and twenty slippers rise on the sunny bank to the left of the post.
Then, a while farther along, at the overlook for Stump Pond, if you crane your neck to peer down the slope leading to the water, there are always a few solitary slippers. The same is true along the esker that runs along the pond’s north flank. Here are the Thoreaus of the species, the slippers who like a little distance from their neighbors.
When the flower shows, inclined just as someone might hold a slipper for a lady’s foot, our native orchid is easy to spot, insistent really. Whose foot? As often happens, we look back to the Greeks and into the mists of myth for answer: the genus name Cypripedium fuses Cypris and pedilion; this “sandal” awaits Aphrodite…as do many of us.
But for these few days before the blossom, it takes orchid eyes to find them amid all the other look-at-me greenery. And It is a little like putting on special lenses: once they are in place, orchid plant after orchid plant appears.
Soon it’s clear, these pitch-pine woods could shoe all the Aphrodites and Cinderellas in the world.
In Boston yesterday and ornithologist said significantly, “If you held the bird in your hand –;” but I would rather hold it in my affections. – Thoreau, Journal, 5/10/54
I am 150 miles southwest of my usual range, here in Connecticut on a family visit, and, by coincidence, now in Stafford Springs for the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race. It’s a blustery morning, with the wind blowing cool reminder from home.
I replace the word “race” with the friendlier “run” and set out at the command of our director, a slight woman perched atop a glacial erratic. We are a many-footed beast, and we shuffle down a dirt road, headed for the single-track trail ahead. There, at first, we will bunch like a human scrunchie, but, over time, we will stretch all the way to solitude.
Our way is marked by white paint dots and, at junctions by ankle-high flaglets that remind of a dog’s electronic boundary. “Don’t go over there, boy,” I say to self and I stay of track.
The run becomes a collage of little moments and the always-rhythm of attention to footsteps; the sights and my own little song take me elsewhere, out of this world.
An then, at 20k, just past the last aid station with its caloric and human boost – “Nice going; almost there” – I’m flagging; the little laughter of two girls who just passed me recedes in the hardwoods ahead, and it’s just tired me here. Sigh, why? A flash of color draws my eye and a scarlet tanager lights at eye level on a branch 15 feet away. His brightness wrings a smile from me, lifts my head, and he stays, his scarlet kindled against the lime-green leaves just unfurling. I stop, watch, want to trill a birdsong of thanks. Any sense of needing to be elsewhere vanishes.
Now I can go on.
So it is to be bird blessed in woods near or far.
These days, when a soft west or southwest wind blows and it is truly warm, and an outside coat is oppressive, — these bring out the butterflies and the frogs, and the marsh hawks, which prey upon the last. Just so simple is every year.” Thoreau, Journal, 4/5/54
Back from today’s run, I set to the dull-but-necessary stretching, and, while bent variously, I see motion where there’s usually none. It is tiny motion, to be sure, but on vision’s periphery, where the laces of my shoe cross, binding me in, something’s stirring. “Ah,” says my hoppy mind, glad for any distraction from the stasis of stretch-and-hold.
The motion bunches, then reaches and a new season begins – I have spring’s first green rider, who must have hitched this ride somewhere back in the woods. And, given that my rider’s on my shoe and lime-colored, not long ago it must have been grazing on a blade of trailside grass. But now, on this charcoal-colored expanse, it is obvious, a magnet for whatever eye is aloft.
Later in the season, this little guy’s relatives will be well over an inch long, but this one’s well under the measure of what may be his name. Inchworm? I click into the wires of research.
More names: “measuring worms, spanworms, loopers,” that’s reason enough for research. Then there’s motion’s method: “An inchworm moves by drawing its hind end forward while holding on with the front legs, then advancing its front section while holding on with the prolegs.” Prolegs? Do I have any of those? Sounds like a trademark. I look at my one-after-the-other feet. My green rider appears to be waving as he searches for a way down off the raised lace of mid-shoe.
Reaching, waving…there must be food out there somewhere; got to keep at it. By now – you probably agree – I have overstretched.
So it’s time for the green-rider-ritual: I stand and walk carefully over to the nearest weed, a dandelion this time, and I pluck a leaf, which I then place in the path of my rider. He reaches out, touches the leaf’s edge, but I am vibrating a bit, and, suspicious of the shaky world, he pulls back, heads off 90-degrees away. I shift the leaf to his path again. What an odd world where a leaf recurs in each direction? Well, he must think, nothing to do but get on board, and he loops up and on.
Now, following reason’s path, I go to the grass at lawn’s border and settle the rider’s leaf in it. A couple of loops take him off-ship, into a new world. I go back to stretching, back the linear track of today.
But now, as I coax flex into my muscles, I’m thinking about metamorphosis: if all goes as it should for the little green rider, some days in the future, he’ll give up looping, inching along and fly away. He is a moth-in-the-making.
And, if all goes well for me, I, a runner-in-the-making, will return to the trails tomorrow for the closest motion to flight I know.
Late in May, 1849, Henry Thoreau published his first book. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, met little public enthusiasm, and because Thoreau had taken on some debt to get his book out, in the end he owed money. The best he seemed able to realize from the venture was his famous “library” joke, wherein he boasted to owning over 1000 books, 700 of which he had written himself. Not a promising start for a most famous writer.
Still, May is a month for fliers – for seeing them, and for taking them – and I’ve returned to the rivers and thickets of A Week as an appreciation for flight, for the setting out that is all enterprise – on water, on air. Pick your liquid. But, once you have, set forth on it.
Thoreau opens A Week with a short chapter of long sentences about the Concord River, and he is intent on epic associations before setting out on his own. He describes his local river as,
…a huge volume of matter, ceaselessly rolling through the plains and valleys…making haste from the high places of earth to its ancient reservoir. The murmurs of many a famous river on the other side of the globe reach even to us here,…many a poet’s stream floating the helms and shields of heroes…The Xanthus or Scamander is not a mere dry channel and bed of a mountain torrent, but fed by the ever-flowing springs of fame;…
Ah, to Troy even. All this before we cast off with Thoreau and his brother John, who set out on Saturday, the next chapter.
At length, on Saturday, the last day of August, 1839, we two, brothers, and natives of Concord, weighed anchor in this river port; for Concord too, lies under the sun, a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men;…
It’s near noon, and now’s the time. I shuck off my work, putting aside my keyboard. And…avert your eyes…I shuck off my clothes too…in favor of others less long-sleeved and leg-sheathed. Then I tie my feet into trail shoes, and I’m off.
When you run, however slowly, the land too is liquid. And, after the obligatory whinging from everything that’s been sitting all morning, I begin to flow along the spring-soft trail, and on into the woods. I am, along this wave-wrinkled land, a foot-pilot, steering first between those two pines, then over the crest of a rise.
What’s on the other side? Let’s go see.
I will confess to a little gloominess in recent days – it’s hard to turn a page or click a link and find good news in the next page or screen. And yet, as I work each morning near an open window, or read at night and hear the peepers soliciting each other, my low mood rises.
As part of my work, I’ve been rereading some of Thoreau’s journal from 1854 – a year when he is, perhaps, at the height of his powers. Publication of Walden’s not far away; the long trudge through draft after draft’s nearly done. It is time to look up…and out.
Our world tends more and more toward scolds, even as decades of experience make clear that most of us don’t respond well to even the most well-meaning of them. And, surely, we’ve all read passages where Thoreau points a finger at us and shakes it. But as I’ve read through the spring of ’54, with its burgeoning life, it’s clear Thoreau can scarcely contain himself. Here is odd example: on 4/14/54, he is annoyed at the distraction of a body that has had the temerity to turn up in the Sudbury River near Fair Haven Pond. How dare human death and woe distract from the birthing of the world? That seems a bit callous, but Thoreau isn’t being mean spirited, I think; he is simply intent on his season.
Today’s Fairhaven Bay is immeasurably, or nearly so, wilder and more forested than in Thoreau’s time, but he finds so much joy in even this scalped landscape; he can’t stop noting what’s there, instead of what’s not, even as what’s not there could be a book in itself. But as spring runs its sap through him, he is joyful…and remarkably observant of each plant’s advent. All these little births; all this uplift. It’s enough to make you think that life does go on.
So it is with the violets, who just now are enjoying their high season in the yard. One section is wearing a coverlet of purple and white; it looks regal. I watch them as I have my morning coffee.
Added note: and today, one of the rhododendrons came out; soon, the lilacs. Purple phase all through my brain – (apologies to J Hendrix).
Corinne H. Smith
“The lilac is beginning to open to-day.” ~ Thoreau’s Journal, April 24, 1854
It was going on 9 p.m., and I was in the mood for a candy bar. Alas, my cupboards were bare. Fortunately for me in times like these, I live just one block behind a strip mall anchored by a large grocery store. (When the garbage trucks come in the middle of the night to empty the metal dumpsters, this proximity doesn’t seem to be quite as wonderful and convenient as it is during daylight hours, however.) So I put on my shoes and jacket and went out into the night. It was a chilly but nice walk of a hundred or more steps along the macadam on my side of the street. It was quiet, too. No one else was out and about. Nice.
By contrast, the store was as startlingly bright and blazing as usual, although business was winding down toward closing time. I searched the checkout aisles for my favorite grab-n-go chocolate, then circled around to the only clerk still standing. He looked tired and bored. “I don’t have a card. And I don’t need a bag,” I told him. In less than a minute, I was back out on the sidewalk and heading toward the house, equipped with my treasure. I would wait to slice open the wrapper when I reached the kitchen.
Back here away from the parking lot, only corner intersections have streetlights. So I kept my eyes on the wide dark strip I recognized as macadam, to make sure of solid footing. Next to me were the various shades of gray representing my neighbor’s evergreens, lawn, and sundry bushes. I was almost next to his house when I was practically knocked over by an aroma. “Whoa.” I stopped and backed up a few steps. The lilac bush! I had forgotten that John had a nice purple lilac bush planted here. And who would have thought that the buds would be opening now? But of course they would. It’s the right time of the season, silly. I grabbed a thin branch and put its petalled tip to my nose. OMG. This is one of my favorite fragrances, ever. I inhaled it a few times and basked in the marvel, then reluctantly let the branch spring back to its brothers. My stomach was growling, and I needed to get home.
Lilacs always surprise me. By the time they burst forth, we’ve already seen the traditional colors of suburban Spring: yellow daffodils and forsythia, blue hyacinths and crocuses, pink flowering and Japanese cherries, and lots of other vivid flowers and trees. Many have lost their petals and are in leaf by now. And just when we’re getting used to living in a green world again, the lilacs show up. And boy, do they pack a punch! Maybe the others serve as mere appetizers, and the lilacs are the main event. This is not a bad thing, to my mind.
As much as I like lilacs, I have never attended a lilac festival. I know that the two big ones are in Rochester, New York (May 6-15) and on Mackinac Island, Michigan (June 3-12). But now that I think of it, I remember seeing a fair number of lilac bushes in various yards along the route of my usual mile-long neighborhood walk. I haven’t sauntered out there in a while. It’s time to go out again on a regular basis. You can be sure that I’ll take time to sample the fragrances of each and every bush. And this time, I won’t wait until the cover of darkness to do it.
“The lilac is scented at every house.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 22, 1853
We’re on our way to this reality, Henry.
This is the season for everything…There is time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts, and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his. Thoreau, Journal, 4/24/59
Or try this one: by the time Geoff and I reach the south end of Scrag Island, we’ve stopped twice to warm our hands. The buoys say the water’s reading around 42 degrees, and, even with the sun square on our hands, that 42 trumps whatever the sun’s coaxed into the air. But the green water shines, and we’ve just watched an osprey brings strands of grass to its nestbound mate, perhaps a final lining for anticipated ospreylets. Both birds have keened at our nearness, and we have paddled farther off their island’s shore.
Our next aim, once we warm hands, is the eagle’s nest on Little Iron Island, a drama-site during 2014, with two eaglets compressing all the outrage of adolescence into a month before they finally fledged. One day we watched tantrum sticks fly from the nest, as an eaglet showed his displeasure…at what we didn’t know. The parent eagles, who shlepped out and back repeatedly with food, looked exhausted by July. For them it seemed the season for one thing only. Constant hunger, no sleep, and all these squalling demands – when will they fly, their posture seemed to say. And then, one day they did.
Perhaps 2014 put the parents off on this egg-to-eaglet thing, but whatever the reason, the nest was vacant in 2015. What about now, we wonder.
We float the incoming tide slowly by the iron-streaked islet; the nest is empty, even as it looks solid, looks like a house I would buy.
Well, on to the next of everything, and there it is, the up and down flight of the season’s first kingfisher as it hurls itself forward. With its outsized head and long tine of beak, it seems to need extra speed just to stay airborne; or perhaps it’s simply necessary speed in pursuit of everything.
For Henry Thoreau, Ripple Lake was Goose Pond, neighbor water to Walden, and for us it’s the cold water of Middle Bay. Everywhere, though, it’s time to watch the ripples.
“Realize” is one of Henry Thoreau’s favorite verbs, and surely the word in other forms drew his eye too. “Reality is fabulous,” he wrote in Walden, and his pursuit of the real in his daily walks is everywhere recorded in his journals.
But today, here in Maine? Really? Is it really spring? And is that really snow, the sort that falls in flakes beyond counting – a bonanza of flakes it might be called – and then begins to be itself on the ground…and on every limb and twig?
I ask the birds as I refill the feeder: “Really?” I say. “Keep filling the sleeve,” they say. “It’s getting hard to find seeds out here. Pour, man; pour.”
I do as I’m told; I am a compliant human, a pour man. Then, I retreat to work in my windowside chair; I realize the snow’s not stopping.
“On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning.” Thoreau – from an early draft of Walden
Recent research, on page and on foot, has taken me to some of Henry Thoreau’s upland excursions, the ones where he traveled a good deal beyond Concord rather than within. In particular, I’ve been reading and imagining about his two journeys into the White Mountains and up Mount Washington.
Henry Thoreau first went to the White Mountains in 1839, beginning his two-week trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, thereby seeding the narrative of his first book. One might suspect that Thoreau’s climb of northeastern high point, Mount Washington would show as a high point in his notes, but it passes in a single clipped sentence. The meandering rivers get their due, as they do also in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But Thoreau’s overland mountain tour in 1858 is, in his journal, a different story; its chronicle covers more than 60 pages, and it is rich with detail.
In his dates and in his commentary, Thoreau catches nicely the early history of climbing on our White Mountains. In 1839, Thoreau and his brother weren’t first on the uplands, but they were part of the vanguard of visitors drawn to its transcendent landscape. Twenty-one years later, Thoreau and his companion Edward Hoar arrived at the height of the pre-Civil War tourist boom: now there were two hotels on top of Washington, and, though Henry, per usual, relied on his own two feet, scores of tourists now rode their way up prominent, popular mountains on bridle paths.
As with many activities that drew throngs, Thoreau later had something to say about mountaintop buildings: “I think that the top of Mt. Washington should not be private property; it should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence’s sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to.” 1/3/61
But what catches my modern eye is his July 8th description of leaving Mount Washington’s summit in the fog, bound for Tuckerman Ravine:
About 8:15 A.M., being still in dense fog, restarted direct for Tuckerman Ravine, I having taken the bearing of it before the fog, but Spaulding [a summit hotelier] also went some ten rods with us and pointed toward the head of the ravine, which was about S 15 degrees W. Hoar tried to hire Page to go with us, carrying part of our baggage, — as he had already brought it up from the shanty [along the carriage road where they spent the prior night] — and he professed to be acquainted with the mountain; but his brother, who lived at the summit, warned him not to go, lest he should not be able to find his way back again, and he declined. The landlords were rather anxious about us. I looked at my compass every four or five rods and the walked toward some rock in our course, but frequently after taking three or four steps, though the fog was no more dense, I would lose the rock I steered for. The fog was very bewildering. You would think that the rock you steered for was some large boulder twenty rods off, or perchance it looked like the bow of a distant spur, but a dozen steps would take you to it, and it would suddenly have sunk into the ground. I discovered this illusion. I said to my companions, “You see that boulder of peculiar form, slanting over another. Well, that is in our course. How large do you think it is, and how far?” To my surprise, one answered three rods, but the other said nine. I guessed four, and we all thought it about eight feet high. We could not see beyond it, and it looked like the highest part of a ridge before us. At the end of twenty-one paces, or three and a half rods, I stepped upon it, — less than two feet high — and I could not have distinguished it from the hundred similar ones around it, if I had not kept my eye on it all the while. Journal
Thoreau, who was a quick study, then offered comment that reads as kin to the sort of advice a reader can find in a modern guidebook about hiking, or in the lesson-drawing comments of mountain accident analyses.
It is unwise,” he writes, “for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. An ordinary rock in a fog, being in the apparent horizon, is exaggerated to, perhaps, at least ten times its size and stance. You will think you have gone further than you have to get to it. Journal
There is, in Thoreau’s description, the hint of menace that fog and unsightedness can carry on an exposed mountain. You can quickly lose your way, become wrapped in illusion, which carries you farther afield; all the while the very rocks on which you walk seem to change size, shift shapes, reminding you also that nothing grows up here, that life’s supports are far below, and that you must go there to live on.
Given good facility with a compass, measures of distance and sound footing courtesy of his work as a surveyor and his long walkings, Thoreau leads the way just there; he and Hoar and companion go down unerringly to Tuckerman Ravine. Already his foot habits are making him familiar with the land. But Thoreau also seems aware that they have reached an edge, a place where accident and trouble are close by, a place visited often by modern search and rescue and its narratives of loss. These mountains, he sees, even in early July, can be a terra of trouble.
Prescient, as ever.
Reader’s Note: My research has also led me J. Parker Huber’s delightful 1999 compilation, Elevating Ourselves, Thoreau on Mountains.
The title phrase comes from novelist Ian McEwan, and, when I encountered it the other day, it vibrated with a particular resonance. Recently, offered a book contract, I’ve settled into a routine that will, I hope, carry me to completion of my new job: after loosing the little workman of caffeine in my bloodstream, and in the morning’s rising light, I go to the mix of research, musing and writing that shapes each day. But at some late morning point, even if I give myself a pep-talk about resolve and deadlines, the words – mine or those of others – lie inert on the screen or page. I write a sentence or paragraph, reread it, and I realize that I don’t have “it” any more, if ever “it” has appeared that day.
What to do? Like many of us, I first check e-mail, though “it” has never written to me. But yesterday, McEwan’s phrase appeared there in a message from my sister-in-law, who thought I’d like the clip where he uses it. I clicked and listened to find out what useful passivity is. It wasn’t long before I found a link to Henry Thoreau, though the link was in practice and not in name. McEwan was praising time away from task, and I slipped the word “necessary” into “useful”’s place; that gave it more Thoreauvian resonance.
In the short clip, McEwan thinks about creativity and the moments when he arrives at an insight or a subject or a phrasing and the mystery of that arrival. Getting there, he thinks, takes travel, but it’s not the sort of direct line we imagine when we draw a line from A to B. Instead, it’s an alphabet of meandering, of the sort a traveler does in a new country. Or a walker in the new hours of afternoon. Here then was Henry Thoreau’s daily walking habit; there then was my own trail-dependency.
Every day when “it” vanishes, I go out to the day’s trail. Sometimes, I fire up the hammer of my heart and run; other times I amble along in search of foot-digressions. I go up and down. I go sideways, here and there. A flash of color alerts me to an idea, or to a bird. I’m not at work, but work can’t happen without this time outside. “It” is out here somewhere.
Here’s the link to the McEwan clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9LZfX3Y8TI
By Corinne H. Smith
The air is full of the notes of birds, — song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds, — and I hear also a lark, — as if all the earth had burst forth into song. The influence of this April morning has reached them, for they live out-of-doors all the night, and there is no danger that they will oversleep themselves such a morning. ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 2, 1852
Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
~ Eleanor Farjeon, “Morning Has Broken”
Each spring I look forward to hearing what I call the First Bird of the Morning. He’s the first one to wake up and the first one to sing his song. He sings for a few minutes, then he stops. There’s a momentary pause throughout the neighborhood. (For all I know, the other birds may have groaned, mumbled, and hit their snooze buttons.) After 20-30 minutes of relative calm, the rest of the avian residents finally wake up and chime in, with the First Bird of the Morning leading the chorus. It’s a lovely symphony that filters into the inch of air allowed by my open bedroom window.
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed different species claim First Bird status. The first year I paid attention to this phenomenon, a robin took center stage. The next year, it was a mourning dove. I’ve heard first melodies from a house finch, a Carolina wren, and from someone I could never quite identify. This year, my First Bird is a song sparrow. And what a singer he is! He seems quite proud to have claimed the first arbor vitae bush next to the carport. He wants to tell the world exactly where his new home is. And his favorite stage of all is the stop sign at the corner.
Yesterday, my morning started like any other. I got up at 5 a.m. and fired up the computer and the teapot. By dawn I had finished with e-mail and social media and had turned to work on current projects. The morning bird music was “on” in the background. I heard the song sparrow again as a soloist after the sun had come up over the horizon. I thought I knew where he would be sitting for his performance. And sure enough, when I looked out the living room window, I saw him perched on the top edge of the stop sign.
But as I watched him rear back his head and offer his beautiful tiny notes to the sky, I saw something else, too. We had been under a frost warning overnight. No white coating covered the grass, but the outside thermometer still hovered around 30°. Accordingly, each time the First Bird sang, little white puffs of his breath came out, too. I had never seen such evidence of bird breath. I stood transfixed and said “Wow” with each delivery.
It was the smallest possible sighting, really: the exhalation of a warm-blooded creature into the chilly atmosphere that surrounded him. An inconsequential observance, most would say. And yet it struck an immediate chord with me. How often do we remember that these animals are breathing the same air that we are? That their little bodies have functioning life systems like ours do? (Each one “a parcel of vain strivings,” as Mr. Thoreau might say.) Probably rarely, if ever, and not as much as we should. But it’s solid proof that we are all connected by living together on this same home planet. I wonder if he saw MY breath in return when I carried the garbage bag out to the curb a few minutes later.
I grabbed the camera and tried to get photos of First Bird, but I can’t seem to get him in focus. You can get an impression of him, but you can’t see exactly what I saw. You’ll just have to take my word for it. The picture remains clear enough in my own mind’s eye.
As I type these sentences now in the following morning, I hear the song sparrow again. Sure enough, he’s sitting on the stop sign. But the air is a few degrees warmer than it was yesterday. I watch intently and I don’t see puffs of his breath. Too bad. I will always remember what they looked like, though. And I will remind myself to always acknowledge that he and I – and all the rest of them — are indeed fellow creatures sharing one single environment.
Editor’s Note: Corinne’s recently released book, Thoreau for Kids, drew a very fine review in the Chicago Tribune the other day. Here’s a link to that review: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-henry-david-thoreau-for-kids-20160414-story.html
“These deep withdrawn bays, like that toward Well Meadow, are resorts for many a shy flock of ducks. They are very numerous this afternoon.” Thoreau, Journal, 4/17/52
Just as winter past seemed reluctant, seemed never to fully arrive, so too, thus far, our spring. I realize that I write this from Maine, an Eliotland where April’s often likened to cruel illusion rather than a real season, but still…even Mainers yearn for a mild day, when the hair on your arms lies down like a dog content.
But cold or no, spring keeps announcing itself, and for me, the urgency of that announcement joined two calls overheard recently.
While cold-water paddling the other day, my friend Geoff and I came upon a raft of ducks that formed a comma more than a quarter mile long in the middle of the bay – more than a “raft,” perhaps we should call such a duck-gathering a “ship” or a “flotilla” of ducks. Anyway, it was an impressive piece of feathered punctuation curved across the water.
Rafting-up’s also a term in kayaking that describes a temporary bonding of boats for stability, for respite. To do so, you simply sidle up parallel to each other and lay your paddles across your foredecks, and then lay your hands on top of the paddles; this gives you a joined formation that allows for chart-reading, snacking, relaxing, etc. with no need to keep a paddle in the water for stability
Such rafts, all rafts are makeshift craft, cobbled together for a time before their parts float or fly away. Here, we are duck-like in our joinings.
As we drew near, curious sound floated our way over to the water. Any number of this multitude of ducks were making a sound like peepers, which also have just emerged in our vernal pools and bogs. And then I wondered, (fancifully, I know) if the ducks had learned their one-note song from hanging out in swamps inland.
But, on longer listen, their group sound was less frantic than that of our frogs with their shrill, gotta-have-it-now trill that’s so aptly mimicked and amplified in the movie Psycho. There, it stands for the drive of perverse appetite that’s just around the filmic corner, and it stands your hair on end. Our ducks were more in mutter’s register than in pulsing matter’s; no need to paddle for our lives.
Anyway, it was a fine vision and sound, even as we tried to stay at respectful distance to keep them from flying (which would have been other-spectacle, but not one we’d like attributed to us). So, exactly which duck-folk they were remains mystery only to be known if they’d flown.
Not far from the duck-water, we noted a vacancy – the eagle’s nest on Little Iron Island sat empty in its oak. It is a handsome construction, and we wondered why it had no family this year. Perhaps, we speculated, the parent eagles were still exhausted from raising the eaglet we had named August, as we’d witnessed any number of tantrum-moments as August grew. During one fit, sticks had actually been flung up and out of the nest amid great squalling; the parents sitting wearily on branches to either side had simply looked at each other and endured. Maybe next year we’ll forgo this, they seemed to say.
Otherwise, the day featured expanses of cold, blue-greeny water, and also the sight of an osprey bearing grassy stringers to its nest-in-the-making, though the nest was already pretty impressive in outline, and so the grassy stuff might have been comfort-lining. May they both be comfortable until the little ones hatch, at which point they, like all parents in the 24-hour cycle of infants, like August’s eagles, will both be weary ospreys.
by Scott Berkley
In his biographical sketch of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson excused his friend and protégé’s fixation on local matters at the same time that he made a good case for Thoreau’s Concord-adoration. “I think his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or latitudes,” wrote Emerson, “but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the indifferency of all places, and that the best place for each is where he stands.”
What Emerson calls the “indifferency” of place, however, we might see as the deep and abiding respect of the writer for local material and what it means. Thoreau, one of the great exemplars of writing from where one stands, has descendants in the poetry of place scattered across our fifty states. One of the greatest was the novelist and poet Jim Harrison, who passed away in late March after many years of wandering his beloved home ranges, first in the upper Midwest and later in the Arizona desert.
As all the obituaries that sprang up after Harrison’s passing have noted, he was prolific enough to make a new reader wonder where to start. Among more than twenty books of fiction, his 2004 novel True North stands out in my mind as a particularly Thoreauvian engagement with the Great Lakes and the land surrounding them: from the back woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; to the cities of Marquette, Sault Sainte Marie, and Duluth; stretching down along the Ohio River all the way to lake-less Indiana. Of course, it being Harrison, it is also a romp through a spread of pleasures both gustatory and sexual – matters that would have been too worldly for the nineteenth-century concerns of Mr. Thoreau.
Yet as in any of his novels, food and sex bolster True North just as much as Harrison’s carefully-honed prose style, making it an unusually sensitive meditation on the landscape and on the way we become ourselves in a world of knowing and unknowing, ancestors and descendants, ordered thinking and chaotic doing. David Burkett III, Harrison’s half-blundering, half-tragic protagonist, wrestles with the self much as young Henry did when first arriving at Walden Pond from the schools of Concord and Cambridge:
… I had high school and college courses in many aspects of the natural sciences but they didn’t enable me to put together the whole picture of what I was seeing around me. It had long been obvious to me that I wanted to know too much, perhaps more than anyone was capable of … I learned in my anthropology course that people prayed in every single culture. But where did the urge to know everything come from?
One can see David thinking all this while rowing a boat downriver, much like Henry Thoreau out floating on the Pond at the moment in Walden that he realizes, “my head is hands and feet.” David loves to row – and we imagine Harrison did, too –because it gives him a view of the past without allowing him to fixate on the future. As David comes to know his Midwestern landscape in search of his family’s history running an extractive logging operation, we realize his “project” is in conversation with Thoreau’s own sense of how to know a place anew, more deeply than ever before.
I wonder often what Henry Thoreau would have written had he survived his illnesses and lived to be sixty or seventy. It is unlikely that he would have become the sort of novelist and raconteur that Harrison still was in his seventies, but undoubtedly he would have kept his custom of spending several daily hours in the act of sauntering, encircling Concord with his footsteps over and over. An older David Burkett, late in True North, goes out on foot in the desert mesas of southern Arizona. After falling repeatedly in the steep and rocky terrain, he learns how different the place is from the forests and marshes of Michigan. “I was a flatlander, simple as that,” he admits. “One day I ran across a biologist disassembling a pack rat nest and midden and he said it took years to learn a new landscape.”
Constantly attuned and devoted to the act of learning the landscape through the saunterer’s vision, Thoreau and his words will endure in part because we come to know Concord so intimately through his. Who but Jim Harrison could have been the deviant saunterer of the upper Midwest, a place that we now know through his words and thus through his eyes.
Scott Berkley is a Middlebury College senior and AMC hutman; he’s writing a thesis on Wallace Stevens and looking forward to summer at Galehead Hut in the White Mountains.
A favorite poem for the month, for spring, for the day-by-day
During his years as U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky set up one of my favorite initiatives – The Favorite Poem Project. In community readings and audio files and online readings citizens were asked to choose and recite or read aloud a favorite poem, one that stayed with them, whispered encouragement, or understanding, or solace…whatever the times. For a while poems appeared spontaneously, sometimes in odd places, unexpected against the daily din, or amid the billboards of announcement.
Though I never committed it to tape or YouTube, I carried with me a favorite poem, a sort of poem in your pocket, or, in my case, poem in your wallet. And I read this poem often, as reminder, as map to the day really. Here, with a thought or two to follow, and then a request, it is:
Mary Oliver’s Going to Walden
It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
Once, while waiting for a speech to begin, I talked with Oliver about this poem, and she pointed out a feature I hadn’t noticed before – the two stanzas appear like tablets, stone on which is written a meditation on life and a route to it. The stanzas are stolid in appearance, even as their language is not; they will endure, as stone does. A reader, this reader, may return to them, even as s/he engages in “the slow and difficult/Trick of living, and finding it where you are.”
I am glad to return to this favorite poem as spring appears, hesitates, vanishes, reappears. Spring too is on more than a “green visit”; perhaps the going is “slow and difficult,” but I hope you are “finding it where you are.”
Send on yours, if you wish.
A few links to the Favorite Poem Project:
By Corinne H. Smith
Thoreau Farm and The Thoreau Society recently held their annual online fundraising auction. Coincidentally, news of a long-ago auction with Thoreau ties came my way at the same time.
In my job at a used bookstore, I handled an auction catalogue from April 14, 1920. It was a nondescript tan paperback that was missing its cover. The title page described the auction collection as “The Complete Writings of Distinguished American, English and French Authors in Finely Bound Library Editions: The Magnificent Library of Colonel Jacob Ruppert of New York City.” As I turned a few pages, I saw 175 listings of classic books and large book sets by many famous authors: Dickens, Shakespeare, and Trollope, to name just a few. Some entries included staged photographs that showed off the leather bindings, lavish gilt decorations on the covers and the inside flyleaves. This did indeed look like a magnificent library, and one where the books had hardly been handled. They may never have been read.
I was intrigued. Who was Jacob Ruppert, and how had he amassed this collection? After searching for more information, I learned that he was probably the American businessman and National Guard colonel who was also the owner of the New York Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939. Ruppert therefore had the money to buy such fine volumes. Why had he decided to auction them off in 1920? This was a question left unanswered. Maybe he was merely downsizing to gain some ready cash.
The lots were listed in alphabetical order by author name. Automatically I turned to the Ts and looked for Thoreau. Bingo! Ruppert had owned a manuscript edition copy of “The Writings of Henry David Thoreau,” the 20-volume set published by Houghton Mifflin and Company in 1906. This meant that an original piece of handwritten manuscript was also included. Only 600 of these numbered manuscript sets were released. Ruppert’s was #319.
The person who had once owned this catalogue must have gone to the auction. He or she wrote the winning bid prices in the margins. This Thoreau set sold for $425. My next questions were: Who had bought it? And where was it now?
I contacted Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of the Princeton editions project that continues to update the Writings volumes. Beth is based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I figured if anyone had a list of the whereabouts of the 600 manuscript editions, she would. She did. And her most current list contained no entry for #319. The Ruppert auction item was new information.
The manuscript edition list that Beth sent me included details of the libraries, private collectors, and booksellers who have been known to own these special copies of the 1906 set. It even quoted the text from the original manuscript pages, when it was known. It included details of archives where some of the handwritten pages are now found. Sadly, some have been lost or destroyed. One of Beth’s questions for me was if the Ruppert auction catalogue described exactly which Thoreau manuscript page accompanied the set. I had to tell her that unfortunately, it did not. This remains another mystery.
I sent messages to a few other special libraries that own copies of Ruppert’s 1920 auction catalogue. None of them had further annotations or details on who bought the items at the sale. All we know is that the new owner paid $425. The books could be anywhere now.
Several sets of the 1906 Writings manuscript edition are on the market today. Asking prices range from $12,000 to $19,000. More than a century after their publication, we have to wonder: What would Jacob Ruppert think? And, what would Henry Thoreau think?
[If you own one of the manuscript sets or know the location of one, and you would like to make sure it is informally registered on the master list, please e-mail Corinne at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The prevailing color of the woods at present, excepting the evergreens, is russet, a little more red or grayish, as the case may be, than the earth, for those are the colors of the withered leaves, and the branches; the earth has the lighter hue of withered grass. Let me see how soon the woods will have acquired a new color. Thoreau, Journal, 4/1/52
Spring, even in this year’s halting version, makes me giddy. There’s a certain silliness that sometimes opens in my mind, like the first crocus, purple, outlandish against the dun leaves. That suggests today as a second first day of spring, the day the fool in me, in us, breaks ground.
Did they have April Fool’s Day when Henry Thoreau was alive? Two searches say…maybe: the first, predictably, is via everyone’s uncle, Google:
There I found lots of hits for the day, but little to say of it in America 1850. I did learn that my ancestors found pleasure in “hunting the gowk,” Scottish for the cuckoo, symbol of the fool. That day of sending people on phony errands was followed by Tailie Day, which was full of butt jokes – pinning a kick-me sign there, etc. And I found that celebration of spring’s pranks is worldwide…and of uncertain origin…appropriate for pranksters, for sure – most humor is of uncertain origin.
And so on to Henry Thoreau’s journals. I paged through 8 or 9 April firsts, scanning each entry for a hint of humor, the glint of a pun. But, counter to the clown spirit of our 4/1s, these entries are downright sober, the 4/1s of Thoreau’s 1850s full of precise observations and clear language; they are not so much purple against brown as rills of clear water after the season of ice. Spring’s rise also favors long entries and all manner of sightings brought in from long, afternoon walks. I took my cue.
And so to a walk: some 20 minutes in, laughter breaks out in a tree to my right. Though long used, as a teacher, to providing comic relief without intending to, I’m only ambling along under a grayish sky, not even humming or talking to myself. So, what’s so funny? And where is the laugher? But I know that laugh; it belongs to one of my favorite birds, a top five among the feathered tribe. It’s a pileated woodpecker, and even as I can’t find him amid the branches, he peels off another laugh. It’s not you (or maybe it is), he seems to say. It’s just, up here in the tree or out in the air, that kind of day.
And put that way, I guess it is. I walk on, leave the laugher behind…except that he stays in my mind.
And later, along a field’s edge, I see the 1st bluebird of spring, chip of sky, season’s new color blue against the tan grasses. No fooling!
Surveying the Tommy Wheeler farm.
Again, as so many times, I am reminded of the advantage to the poet, and philosopher, and naturalist, and whomsoever, of pursuing from time to time some other business than his chosen one, — seeing with the side of the eye. The poet will so get visions which no deliberate abandonment can secure. The philosopher is so forced to recognize principles which long study might not detect. And the naturalist even will stumble upon some new and unexpected flower or animal. Thoreau, Journal, 4/28/56
Henry Thoreau had no real fondness for surveying, even as he had a talent for it, and it provided him with steady work (when he wanted it) and some of his family’s income. Still he profited not only from the work, but also from its habits of foot-found measurement. Not only could Thoreau pace off land and boundaries with formidable accuracy, but he also grew used to and adept at seeing maps on the ground. And though this habit fostered too a sort of ambivalence, his mapping eye was a sort of “seeing with the side of the eye,” I think, and the maps he formed of the Concord area grew well beyond the making of boundaries for which he was paid. They became illustrated, animated, narrative maps as well, and his stories flowed from them.
Thoreau’s mappings and mapping-mind came to mind recently as I read an essay by Kim Tingley about the Secrets of the Wave Pilots of the Marshall Islands in the NY Times Magazine. Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/magazine/the-secrets-of-the-wave-pilots.html?_r=0
Some scientists had traveled to these Pacific Islands to see if they could understand the navigations of wave pilots, who, for hundreds of years, had sailed over seemingly trackless seas from island to island. The best wave pilots navigated with remarkable accuracy and without instruments; reportedly, they did so by sensing variations in the waves that showed them what they called the di lep, the way on the water.
The article was long and the years of summarized science complex, but it turned on a sort of cognitive mapping, which the wave pilots learned, and which yielded familiar water and known routes from what everyone else sees as chaos. In particular these wave pilots had grown adept at reading the way waves interacted with the widespread islands, setting up distinctive patterns that suggested where those islands were over the horizon. And the idea of sensitivity to surroundings shaping maps in the mind called up similar, land-based experiences that I’ve had in familiar hills I’ve walked for tens of years.
Just as one of the story’s wave pilots could orient himself by reading and feeling immediate waves, I’ve found that, even in the fog of cloud banks, and even in the absence of trails, certain trees and rocks and slopes suggest the way. There is, however, a qualifying IF: such orientation works if I carry in my mind an overall map of the area, and that map is a composite of study and experience. The study comes from my habit of reading topo-maps (or sea charts) for fun; the experience comes from being a foot pilot in the terrain of those maps. Over time, across land, it becomes a familiarity that I follow, even in “trackless woods.” My familiarity may not take me over miles to visit a particular tree, as Henry Thoreau sometimes did, but I can see how the miles of walking and re-walking have formed mind-maps. And how, sometimes in those woods, I feel “everywhere at home.”
And that offers a whiff of understanding for how wave pilots may develop their exquisite readings of water.
And for another time: The essay also speculates about a fascinating link between motion over sea and land and our narrative inclinations and abilities – in short, it wonders if our stories come from our memories of motion. Thoreau, I think, would lean (or walk) in that direction. He would read Tingley’s narrative of the di lep avidly.
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
Henry Thoreau didn’t have to deal with automobiles, highways, and intersections. He was lucky. We who have driver’s licenses and cars, do. And to have any success at getting anywhere, we have to pay attention to everything happening around us. It’s an action with the multitasking demand built right into it.
Here in Suburbia USA, I’ve found some unique road signs that have made me think of Thoreau’s quote about looking and seeing. And they could appeal to his love of wry wit, too.
A major intersection near the site of my weekday job was re-engineered this past year. Now it handles a state roadway that bypasses a small city. It also leads a regional hiking and biking trail across railroad tracks and toward a visitor center. The new traffic signal has to accommodate walkers, bikers, trains, casual traffic, and tractor-trailers that barrel through and head either to a major landfill or to a convenience store headquarters. A lot of movable objects can be present at any given moment.
A small, new sign was installed here as soon as the traffic signal began working. I laughed out loud the first time I saw it.
I had never seen this kind of sign before. Naturally, we’re going to look both ways, no matter what. But this was a subtle reminder to do so, even though a four-way light was still supposedly controlling the traffic. Although we have been skeptical about how this crossing would function, we have yet to see or hear any accidents happening here. So far. I guess everyone is looking left. And then looking right. Or vice versa.
Another intersection a few miles away sits in the middle of farmland and a few small residences with large acreages. But the lay of the land makes it a bit difficult to see oncoming traffic. Installers of a sign here took greater lengths to explain to us what to do.
I laughed when I first saw this sign, too. Is it really necessary? And yet I follow its instructions and look even more times than it suggests, before venturing across.
With so many road signs demanding our attention and commercial billboards admonishing us to buy-buy-buy, it was inevitable that someone would take matters into his/her own hands. That someone had posted an original and handmade directive.
Who said rural folks don’t have a sense of humor? I think Thoreau would have laughed at this one, too.
This is the spring of the year. Birds are migrating north to their breeding-places; the melted snows are escaping to the sea…The element of water prevails…What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, the first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man? Thoreau, Journal, 4/18/52
Nearby, a needle-softened slope under big pines tips just so to the south; it cups the March sun, and, after the ice vanished one night from the pond it fronts, I’ve been watching that slope. There, today, a few days early (and before the weekend’s once predicted snow), I saw spring. Or at least one of Henry Thoreau’s favorite signs of the season.
Skunk cabbage grows to be large, green and glossy, but when it first peeks around above ground, it’s hard to spot. Often it shows one or two little horns above the mottled leaves of last year, and those horns have a rich green redness that blends well with the dun ground.
What will follow? seems the question of all first shoots, and in years past, at bog’s edge, I’ve seen a whole green village of cabbage. But here, near the equinox, somehow the future seems an open question; there’s no guaranteed answer. We could tip back to winter; we could go headlong into spring; we could for a while balance in the even light, warm on one side, cold on the other.
I kneel to look and imagine the body below the horn…or it could be a nose, or even a thumb… its imagined face looks up, feeling perhaps the new warmth on this sun slope. Nothing moves visibly. “What occult (Cramer translates as hidden or inscrutable) is implied between this plant and” me?
But now the sun has warmed my back, and I feel the fibers of cloth stir; unrooted animal that I am, I grow impatient, get ready to move on. It’s all about (to) change. For both of us.
coda: after a few photos, I break a tip from one of the horns and rub it between my fingers, and I find the distinctive scent’s not yet taken hold either; the cabbage hasn’t risen to ripe. That too seems assigned to later.
Watching a Wendell Castle Documentary at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC
The real facts of a poet’s life would be of more use to us than any work of his art. Thoreau, Journal 10/26/57.
Whenever I encounter someone who has chosen to live or think outside the usual lines prescribed by society, Henry Thoreau comes to mind. That’s not, I realize, much of a stretch; Thoreau cast himself as outsider again and again, in part to offer those inside the lines a different perspective, another set of images to consider when it came to deciding how best to imagine and live a life.
Such a resonance was especially strong a few weeks ago, when I visited an exhibition at Museum of Arts and Design in New York. It was a snowy, late afternoon, and I had just walked along the fringe of Central Park, watching the large flakes kiss themselves as they reached the water in a chain of ponds; I was feeling especially lucky at this walk, albeit a little wet and cold.
With friends, I entered the museum, shook off some soggy snow and then took the elevator to the top floor to see the furniture designs and sculptures of Wendell Castle, an artist my friends knew of from Rochester, New York. Castle’s work has an organic, layered flair to it, and he favors rich woods. I’ve included a few photos from and the link to his website, so you can have a look. But what linked him in my mind to Thoreau was a clip from a documentary about Castle’s life.
In a section about his childhood and how he came to art, which is another way to say how he came to know himself, Castle reflected on some of a child’s usual routes – sports and school.
Here’s a short poem that incorporates some of what Castle had to say; it imagines the moment described in the documentary from his point of view, actually from 2 points of view, the first as a child, the second the adult subject of the film.
“I’ve got Ray.” “Okay,
I’ve got Chuck.” Chuck’s face
unscrews – he’s not slipped
to me – one from last, yes,
but not what comes next:
“You take Castle.” “Naw,
we got enough, you take him.”
I am about to be returned when
they decide, “Castle, you’re the sub,
when someone has to go,”
and they turn to the field,
their glove-hands hanging like
outsized claws, their throwing hands
free to punch and jostle, to
touch as boys will, as they step
over the lime lines that shape
a geometry of childhood.
again to go, then look out
at the camera documenting me,
its convex lens unblinking,
and draw my own lines, say,
“So I learned
myself and Art
was the field
I like to think of Henry Thoreau choosing himself too, as it seems, artists do – when he chose to write; when he went to Walden; when he returned. When he went out each day to walk his own lines across the near world.
link to Castle website and more about the artist and his work: http://wendellcastlecollection.com/index.cfm/do/WCC.wendell_castle_modern_designer_furniture
This morning I got my boat out of the cellar and turned it up in the yard to let the seams open before I caulk it. The blue river, now almost completely open (i.e. excepting a little ice in the recesses of the shore and a good deal over the meadows), admonishes me to be swift. Thoreau, Journal, 3/8/55.
Often, we arrive at a season’s edge the way we revisit an old clearing. What, we wonder as we draw near, has changed? What’s the same? And so we go primed for comparison.
Still, when it comes to favorite places, we go too harboring a secret hope – may it be the same as I remember; may time and winter’s passage have been gentle, unremarkable; may I live again in this happy place. In a way, those hopes sum to another: may I feel the same in this place. Today, after loading the boat on top of the car (having reinstalled the roof-rack yesterday), I plan to go to the sun-inflected harbor with that hope.
That calendar winter endures even as its meteorological twin has vamoosed is fodder for street conversations across town. Even the piled residue where dutiful neighbors raked snow from their roofs dwindles to mere white accent. And little collapses of dirt along the trails show that frost is heaving from the ground; a few green shoots, freed from the straitjacket of frost, eye the sun.
And so, a little before eleven, Geoff and I set out for our nearest local launch site. Even as we raise the boats to the car’s roof, we can see the wind in the overhead pines; they wave vigorously. “Well,” says Geoff, “that’s the forecast. We’ll stay close to shore.”
At Simpson’s Point, we don’t even bother to get out of the car. The water’s roiled with whitecaps, and the wind blows directly on to the concrete tread that lets trailered boats into the bay. Next, we try Mere Pt three miles south along the peninsula. It’s rougher, and the seasonal dock we might shelter behind to launch is…well, seasonal…and so, not there.
There’s enough prep time for paddling our kayaks, especially in cold water (today, a nearby buoy reads 39 degrees) to feel like an investment. So, we go a little farther afield, over to Lookout Pt. There, we know a little comma-shaped cove faces north, and so we’re pretty sure we’ll find enough shelter from the south wind to get into the water without being wave-battered.
Here, the south wind streams unimpeded up the bay, and it is honking (the same buoy that gave me the water temperature records a steady 20 knots, with gusts to 25). The water froths with whitecaps. But our little north-facing cove’s only shivered by the wind, and the water looks, as cold water will, crystalline.
We gear up, tote our boats to the waterline and lever ourselves in. I ease off the sand, and, by the time I’ve attached my sprayskirt, the wind’s taken me 50 yards north. After months out of my boat, I feel the little wobble of rebalancing, and then, as I begin to paddle, angling toward the east shore, everything settles – the water lifts and jostles, and I make the hundred, familiar adjustments, relaxing down into sea and cadence. Soon, now out of the cove’s lee, I’m a part of the waves rather than subject to them. Geoff joins me and we run down fast with the wind, sliding and surfing down the waves.
An hour later, after exploring some small coves and cliffs still garbed with scraps of remnant ice, and after eliciting complaint from a large flock of overwintering Canada geese, we turn and fight our way upwind at a knot or so. The work is warming, pleasurable, even as the gusts nearly stall us. One sharp, green wave lifts before me; I press forward and it breaks over my bow and washes along the whole boat. It is the day’s spawn and the season’s baptism.
By Corinne H. Smith
Last month, as described in a story posted here on February 15th, graphic designer Matt Steel launched his Kickstarter campaign to publish a New Walden. His intent was twofold: to adapt Thoreau’s original text with updated language; and to use design to present a more readable and more attractive book. He knew his approach could be misunderstood at first and could also be seen as controversial. Although he got good press and immediate contributors during the first week, he also got a lot of quick, negative feedback.
“I felt I couldn’t ignore it,” Matt said. “And it came from people from all over, from readers and writers of all ages. Not just from The Thoreau Society members and academics. It became clear to me that adaptation was NOT the best way to keep this book evergreen.” He agreed that perhaps he had been a bit overzealous with his initial plan.
As a result, Matt has revised the goals of his project. He will NOT change Thoreau’s words. He will still design a beautiful, easier-to-read version of “Walden.” “Even people who were against the idea of adaptation, thought my design was beautiful,” he said. The font he is using is a tribute to Thoreau too, and one that calls upon the family’s roots. “It’s more Huguenot, with a French boldness,” he explains.
Matt will additionally focus on including annotations intended to help lay readers understand some of the now-uncommon references. The notes won’t be as scholarly as the ones found in the three previous annotated Waldens. And he won’t use footnotes, either. Each description will appear in the margin adjacent to the text it applies to. “Superscripts seem biblical or encyclopedic,” Matt said. With proper note placement, no one will have to search for answers. He sees the value of this edition in its overall design and readability.
To Matt’s knowledge, no other Kickstarter campaign has changed its course in mid-campaign. How did his early backers react to the news? “70% said they would stick with us if we made the change,” he said. “About 40% still preferred the idea of the adaptation.” He went along with the majority decision. He hopes that some of the people who were at first put off by the project will come back and become part of it. To date, only about 25% of the dollars have been committed. His fundraising drive is scheduled to end on March 17, 2016.
What will happen if the New Walden isn’t fully funded? “I’ll have to think of the next step,” said Matt. “I won’t be done with Henry. But I may take a break to reflect and refocus. I continue to admire Thoreau’s complexities and his ability to consider both sides of an issue.” He’ll keep “Walden” and Thoreau close in his life, no matter what the outcome turns out to be.
You can visit Matt’s Kickstarter page and see his updated video and description at:
Okay, cheap the title may be. But spring begins in the mind, takes hold as attitude, enabled, of course, by the rising light.
During the past few days, the temperature hasn’t reached thirty, and much of the time, its cold nose has found a way through any opening. Still, the first forsythia have bloomed. Yes, these yellow sprays are really forced-sythia, a rite of spring learned from my father, and one that in many years (last, for example) has had me hip deep in snow, cutting sprigs with my clippers.
This year, I strolled right up to the wiry branches and took my time choosing those that showed a good number of buds. Then, I set them in a vase of warm water, and along with the rest of the watching world, began to wait. Even in their spare winter form, the branches are handsome, describing curves in the air, reaching for what’s next.
And in their incremental, daily swelling, the buds offer reminder of rebirth. This year, the light joins them; it falls in streaks across the dun colors and lifts the heads of a few winter-flattened ferns in pockets of woods. The glare of reflected, eye-squinting white is absent – last winter was so bright, I had often had to look away. And, by this time in March last year, many of us were trying also to get away.
But here, gift of El Nino, or warning from climate, or simply, gift, comes spring and its varied arrivals. For me true spring will arrive with the scratchy song of the redwing blackbirds, as they celebrate every wetland, little and large, with announcement.
But, for now, I’ll take these little, yellow blossoms. Sure I am with me the force-sythia is.
Their gray stalks stand still at attention. Even after winter’s varied batterings, many of them are intact, though closer inspection finds the ground littered with remnants too. On this sunny, early March morning when winter seems to have given up on itself, the southwest breeze brings scent of ocean, and it stirs also these milkweeds. As I watch, a finger of air finds one brown seed suspended beneath its silky white parachute, and the whole ensemble lifts off; at eye-level, it sways in place, seems to hesitate, then it flies upfield, with the wind.
All across this small forest-girt meadow, this flight happens again and again, and sometimes the air seems seeded with a snow that rises, that aims to ascend again to the sky. I am mesmerized by the flight of seeds. Also by their promise.
I let one go, and it rises slowly and uncertainly at first, now driven this way, then that, by invisible currents, and I fear it will make shipwreck against the neighboring wood. But no; as it approaches it, it surely rise above it, and then feeling the strong north wind, it is borne off rapidly in the opposite direction, over Deacon Farrar’s woods, ever rising higher and higher, and tossing and heaved about with every fluctuation of the air, till at fifty rods off and one hundred feet above the earth, steering south — I lose sight of it. Thoreau, Faith in a Seed
When I left for home, I took with me two pods, one with its silky seed-strands matted by winter snow and water, the other seemingly just burst. Along the way a few seeds floated away – I was, intentionally for a while, one of Nature’s dispersers. I was also drawn by the colors of the pods, a driftwood-pale-gray, against which the white seed strands glowed, and the dark brown heart of seed suspended below. A perfect composite of earth and sky.
Despite its weedy surname, milkweed is no throwaway plant. Not, anyway, if you like the monarch butterfly. Preferred food and nursing-station for the larvae of these remarkable migrant butterflies, milkweeds have long been under human attack for their seeming uselessness. They are no “crop,” goes the reasoning, so why cede field-space to them?
But if your crop is beauty and miracle, if, in short, your crop is life, then you will admire the milkweed. Not only do its seeds fly finely on the wind, but they enable also the multinational life of the monarch. Reason enough to praise rather than poison the milkweed.
And as often happens with sightings while I walk, these milkweeds have sent me back to readings, both on line and in Faith in a Seed, Brad Dean’s remarkable “first publication of Thoreau’s last manuscript” in 1993. It is the finest kind of spring reading.
Here’s an excellent University of Minnesota website for Monarch Questions: http://monarchlab.org/biology-and-research/ask-the-expert/faq/
The knife I use to open the still-joined pages in my edition of Thoreau’s journal comes from Durango, Colorado; more precisely, it comes from a trail that winds above the town into the mountains. There, one morning as we walked up, finding our way eventually to a 12,000’ high point, I noticed anomaly packed into the reddish dirt; a flat, black stone, I thought. As I bent to look, I saw patterning, which resolved as the incised side of a 5-inch buck-knife. I dug it out, looked instinctively around for the owner, and, seeing no one, pocketed my find. No one else had been there for weeks.
That evening, I cleaned the knife, washing away the grit, scrubbing the blade, which soon shone dully, even as it held a fine edge. It became my trail-knife, both in the hills, and along the long reach of Thoreau’s uncut journals. If I look closely, I can still see the red dirt from that long-ago trail lining the cross-hatchings on the knife’s side.
Over time, I’ve come across a few other incisions as I’ve dropped like some small, literary paratrooper into this journal or that. A few whole pages have been sliced from this 1906 edition, and, of course, that has made me curious. The writer from whom I received these books struck me – though I knew her only a little – as a preserver. She had been a local newspaper editor and historian, and, when people wanted an answer to a town question from the past, they were likely to hear, “Go ask Eleanor. She’ll know.”
Each week, Eleanor would write a column about some local evolution, and each week, my wife, who edited the paper, would stop by to collect that column. Eleanor seemed to lead an interior life at that time, and most often the column, typed with the old Courier font, would be in a basket in the entryway to her house. Still, some connection must have formed, because one spring, books in boxes began to accompany the columns. And one of those boxes – two actually – held the 1906 edition on Thoreau’s journal and published works.
Some years passed before I noticed the first missing page; its cut was straight and clean. It had been careful work. I had, by that time, devised my own cutting ritual, using my found buck-knife for the joined pages in sections Eleanor and whoever had owned these books before hadn’t opened. If I took care and drew the blade steadily toward me and down the seam, the paper parted so each page matched. If I hurried or even turned my head a little toward distraction, the paper would tear into ragged edges, though most of the time the generous margins left the writing intact. Still, each poor cut felt like injury.
But this excised page puzzled, and I looked into it. Research brought a few fantastic moments: might I have, as gift, one of the 600 Manuscript Editions, the 1906 printing that bound in a page of Thoreau’s original journal to each 20 volume set? I sat back in a little dream of discovery’s edge.
Well, no. Those editions were numbered; mine was not. A quick search on line shows that copies of the Manuscript Edition are still out there for sale…if you have roughly $20,000 to spare. My edition, the Walden Edition, clearly issued from a usual print run, part of a broader stream of publication, and a pencil notation suggested that Eleanor had acquired it in 1987, for the meager sum of $25. What then had been cut cleanly out? I would have to find out when I next met this set of books in some other library.
Still, this gift edition carries forward, offering affirmation and surprise. And, as further reward, during my sleuthing, I’ve reread Emerson’s unadorned and adoring introductory pages, his eulogy for Thoreau; its simple sentences pointed simply, admiringly, to genius in the pages ahead. To someone a cut above.
Link to Atlantic Monthly archive of the original publication of Emerson’s eulogy in 1862: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/08/thoreau/306418/
“As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect.” Thoreau, Walden
All the phoo-rah that gathers around groundhogs in early February has had me watching shadows. And that, mixed with my habit of taking everyday photos, has led me to “shadies,” a sort of self-representation that seems apt for woodswalkers, who surely track shadows as intently as light, or self.
I took my first recent shady by accident – there, in a micro-climate nursed by the sun, were a few shoots of green grass. Attuned to winter’s shades of sere and brown, I bent first to look, and then for a photo. Later, when I scanned the day’s images, I stopped on this one: the green was arresting in its shades other than pine, but so too was the shadow crowding in from the left. What threw that, I wondered?
It took a moment to recognize my shadow-self. No “halo” though, and so not “one of the elect” under the eye of divinity. A relief.
Not long after, it occurred to me that the “shady” should replace the selfie, if one is of a mind to record presence. There could even be shady-sticks, repurposed selfie-sticks that are held behind and between person and sun. Such a shot would rearrange the celebrity-selfie as well: whose shadow is that next to my familiar own?
Shadies are all about silhouettes, an older sort of representation before full-frontal me-ness claimed everyone’s attention. They suggest presence without making it central; they are the outline of story without the banal details and chipped tooth.
Attending to shadow also makes us more aware in the woods, where the margins of little light hold the world’s other animals. No longer in peril (unless you run or walk in lion territory), our sense of the shadowy periphery has faded; what used to be a wide angle of awareness has shrunk to a few central degrees. And, as I watch a whole new generation of walkers with bent-over heads, focused on small glowing screens, oblivious to what’s around them, I realize what easy meat we have become.
The shady then is remainder and reminder. Our shadows say that we were there, are here, but they say also that we are not the whole show.
New walking mantra: Leave only footprints; take only shadies.
“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
Here in Maine, we near caucus, even as others across the country turn to (or look away from) their primaries. The long, at times, colorful, overflight of hot-air balloons that precedes this actual choosing of balloonists is over. Now, which to pick? How to give that choice a semblance of weight?
Whenever I vote, Henry Thoreau comes to mind, in part because the approach to voting, if one cares, seems to me infinitely complex. But then it simplifies to a “strip of paper.” I must choose one name.
In Maine we express primary choice via that awkward verb, “to caucus,” which the little meaning-checker in my mind invariably switches to “carcass.” Which connects again with Thoreau, who advises that we do more than scratch an X on paper, that we “cast [our] whole vote,” throwing some weight of action and effort behind that vote. Thoreau asks then that we vote with our bodies or…yes, you see it coming…we caucus with our carcasses.
All right, I have had my little fun with the little trickster of language, but what about the weight of voting? Is there a weight and weightiness that surrounds voting, even in this era when the average citizen with her or his average voice feels diminished? Are we making any mark when we vote?
My mind leaps to another weighty moment, and I am reminded of another being (of sorts; also familiar to Thoreau) that scratched its mark across the landscape, leaving sign of its passage and preferred direction.
Long before we began making our marks on this land, the glacier scraped over our region, and, where bedrock’s exposed, we find its signs. How did they get there? The ice, in places thousands of feet thick, carried within it innumerable stones, and those on the bottom surface acted as little gouges on the bedrock that stayed put. Each stone that made its mark was a voice of sorts: “I was here and went this way.”
And, as I vote, I imagine myself as a little stone too, one for now at the place where the body politic grinds over bedrock; I make my mark. And then the glacier politic moves on.
I know Thoreau had in mind much more agency than that; his heroic “I” could, in his mind, throw his weight about in ways that made voting on a “strip of paper” seem trifling. That is the argument of being Civilly Disobedient.
But for this post, I’m wondering about the Xs of voting, and whether this – “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” – still feels possible, whether you or I, the average Jo or Joe today, is more than a little scratching stone? That seems a voting season’s question.
One of the wired life’s pleasures lies in suddenly being taken elsewhere, or, at least, reminded of it. Just so the other day when my inbox brought news from Yellowstone; it promised loon news to boot.
As the poet Gary Lawless notes in these perfect lines from his poem, Listening for Loons,
“like loons we dive under
dive under and
come up somewhere else.’”
And so I leaned forward to see where this loon might rise, where I might come up. The indicator-ripple was one line: “Click on To Catch a Loon when you have 11 minutes.”
Can loons hold their breath for 11 minutes, I wondered as I checked my watch, where I found that I didn’t have 11 immediate moments. “Later,” I said…and worried vaguely that the note might not be there when I returned – that both is and isn’t the way with loons, I’ve found.
In the warmer seasons, when yearlings are along the summer coast, or, in the fall, when parent-loons show up too, I often find gatherings, 4s or 7s of them at predictable sites along my kayak-trails. Then again, every third time, there’s no one there, and I’ve stopped counting the times when, out in the middle of absence, I hear a floating call. For which I always stop and begin scanning the wavelets and reflections until I spot the loon.
Eleven unspoken-for minutes appeared yesterday, and I clicked the link, feeling the imagined Gs warp me some as I was drawn toward Yellowstone. A call/howl greeted me; a voice intoned that I was hearing a “top predator.” Okay, wolf, I was sure. Then, the podcast morphed to the call of another “top predator”: ah, loon, of course. Boss bird of the lake.
A little rock music followed, to remind me that all life has a soundtrack, and then the narrator’s voice took me into the nights: specifically into the night woods trekking toward the night lake, where loon biologists would attempt the night capture and banding of a mother loon, one of only a dozen loons living in the park.
One of the biologists was loon-notable, Jeff Fair, a friend whose 40+ years of fieldwork form an important part of our loon-knowing. Fair would also be the night-paddler, who would steer the canoe to the loon-catching point – who paddles so precisely and quietly, arriving alongside a bird that Henry Thoreau (famously) could only laugh with from an always-different distance during his loon-games on Walden? Loon-master Fair.
Well, if you’ve read this far, it’s clear that you have 11 minutes to spare; what about another 11? Click this link for a little travel and some looning; send it on to the varied birds of your life. They will like you for it.
Best news: these 11 minutes contain a little audio-tutorial on making baby loon calls, which are central to the strategy of capturing a loon at night. Those calls lure the loon, and they will be a rich replacement for the poor imitation of Loonish that I have so far voiced when trying (repeatedly, I confess) to strike up conversations. When no one else is here, I have begun practicing already.
Already, I sense summer answer.
By Corinne H. Smith
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~ Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Five years ago, 31-year-old Matt Steel of St. Louis read Thoreau’s Walden for the first time. Or at least, he tried to read it. He found the going a bit rough. First of all, he was accessing a copy of the unformatted text on his iPad, which didn’t make the words visually appealing. His reading sessions were interrupted at whim whenever text messages or software updates chimed through the device. (The irony of using a tool designed for multitasking in order to read a book encouraging simplicity was not lost on him, either.) And then there was the matter of Thoreau’s use of 19th-century language and references to classical literature. Now, Matt is a smart guy, and he really wanted to read Walden. At this time in his life, he felt he NEEDED to read it. But barriers kept appearing.
Finally, between the iPad screen and a 1993 Barnes & Noble print copy of Walden (loaned to him by his mother), Matt got deeper into the book. And he was blown away. He connected with Thoreau’s ideas immediately and found similarities in his own life – with an interest in closeness to nature, the independence and rights of the individual, the choice to live deliberately. Most of all he admired the concept of simplicity “and intentional slowness, leaving room for higher, transformative pursuits,” as he calls it. The concepts resonated with this busy, married, father of three who searched for a balance of work, rest, and play in his own life. He saw Thoreau as a benevolent teacher who was willing to share his ideas with an eager new student.
Matt became an instant Walden fan. And he wanted to pass along his enthusiasm for the book with everyone he met. But as many of us Thoreauvians have discovered, he found he had to couch his recommendations. This situation bothered him. “I didn’t want to have to always provide a caveat,” he said. “I didn’t want to keep telling people they should read Walden – ‘BUT’ …”
We know this “but.” But: the first chapter, “Economy,” is long and can be difficult to manage. But: sometimes you have to read long sentences a few times to fully understand them. But: Thoreau seems to follow tangents on occasion, and he refers to pieces of classical literature that few readers are familiar with today. But, but, but.
As a lover of language and as an accomplished graphic designer, Matt thought he could come up with a solution for these challenges. He could produce a better looking book with good typography, layout, and illustrations, first of all. He also could update syntax and find better ways of conveying those older cultural references to contemporary readers. In essence, he could create a version of Walden as if Thoreau were writing it in the 21st-century. The project soon became larger than he first anticipated. He backtracked and did some research on Thoreau’s life, including devouring Walter Harding’s biography, The Days of Henry Thoreau. And he added two new members to his team to help him: co-editor writer and poet Billy Merrell, who is also a Thoreau fan; and illustrator Brooks Salzwedel, who specializes in scenes of nature and the environment.
Matt was inspired by the recent example set by book designer Adam Lewis Greene. In 2014, Greene announced his goal to redesign and rework the language and structure of the Bible. He created a linguistic update of a public-domain translation of the text. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $37,000 to cover his publication costs – and met this goal in just 24 hours. To date, Greene has gotten $1.4 million in pledged funds for his new version of the Bible. The four-volume Bibliotheca is currently in production and is available for pre-order. If the Bible could be adapted and updated, Matt thought, why not Walden?
Matt has spent the last eight months working with the text. He is quick to point out that he is not “simplifying” or dumbing it down. He’s not removing any of Thoreau’s ideas from the original book. He did break up “Economy” into multiple thematic chapters for easier understanding, however. And he’s not imposing his own style of writing onto Thoreau’s work. He’s scrutinizing each line and determining whether or not it may require translation into contemporary American speech.
For example: take one of Thoreau’s best-known sentences: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
In order to replace the old-time use of the gender specific, Matt at first altered the line to: “Most people lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Upon further reflection, he knew these words didn’t carry quite the same meaning as the original. Now he is leaning instead toward: “The masses lead lives of quiet desperation.”
And he’s still not sure. We’ll have to wait to find out what the final decision will be.
Matt has learned much since he took on this personal project. He says that his respect for Henry Thoreau and for the man’s most famous book have escalated over the past months. He is humbled by the complexity he finds in Thoreau’s poetic prose. He believes that Thoreau’s retreat to the pond and his public sharing of the experience through publishing the book in 1854 was “a great act of philanthropy.” “If Thoreau had been the hermit some folks still assume he was,” Matt says, “he could have kept his ideas and his words to himself. This wasn’t the case. I believe he was a teacher at heart, until the day he died.”
And yet, he knows how committed Thoreau fans are to the original Walden. Some folks consider it their own Bible. Matt assures us that the new book doesn’t seek to replace the original. He hopes people will look at both versions side by side and will give his edition a chance. Or, perhaps, that Thoreauvians may point to his book as a new reader’s way into Walden’s world. You can see a preview of the first chapters at https://medium.com/life-learning/walden-part-1-economy-chapter-1-d0c7eb6e35d#.69h7gwozh.
To fund this project, Matt Steel will launch his own Kickstarter campaign on February 16, 2016. He intends to print 2,000 copies of his Walden adaptation later this year. When it comes out, Matt will be 37: the same age that Thoreau was at the time of his publication in 1854. This story is yet another example of the influence Henry Thoreau continues to have on individuals today. We wish him good luck!