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”
Like many who follow Henry Thoreau’s lines of words, I also find my tracks outdoors aligning – in some ways – with his. The other day, I arose and thought, It’s a good day for some boat-time, and so I went down to the sea (different, I know, from Henry’s river, but consistent with his love of watery exploration).
The early morning was still and wisps of fog hung above its glassy surface. I pointed up the bay and caught the helpful hand of the tide, easing along and watching the sun begin its work on a thin cloud-deck. Only a few lobster boats grumbling in the distance for company.
Near midday, I reached the point where my route turned south toward the sea again, and conveniently, the tide turned too. I had, by reading chart and tide tables planned this shift, and, as I eased along, I was pleased with myself. Which, of course, invited the attentions of whatever little god oversees my maritime adventures.
I was ready for a modest sea-breeze in my face. That’s a near-daily feature of the midday, and so I expected a little added work. But I’d also paid close attention to the chart – “surveyed it,” Thoreau might have said – and so I had a route that “hid” behind islands for much of the way. And the forecast had featured “light winds,” so even an exposed mile or so before my turn to the west didn’t worry me.
The tide coursing out from the New Meadows River is strong, in part because its deep channel means there’s a lot of volume. And those who fiddle in boats on the sea know also that when wind opposes tide (in this case south wind, tide flowing from the north) ruffled water sometimes results.
What I had not read closely, despite long experience and many minutes spent at the chart, was the way the land pinches the river at its mouth. There, water to 150 feet in depth flows between an island (happily named Bear) and a point (ominously named Fort). Why name this point Fort? I wondered. Ah, I reckoned later, because it overlooks the narrowest point in the river, and so it’s a good place to site a fort.
Here, on this benign summer day, was trouble. And work. A modest form of each, but each was recognizable too.
The breeze jumped to 10-15 knots; the waves roughened; even the two-foot swell, thus far a slow lifting and falling of the sea’s chest, joined in the action, merging with some of the chop. I cut through a few steep waves around 3 feet high. And, as the tide coursed by Fort Point, the water began to spin some; now the waves arrived from differing angles too.
Near my limit of skill, I pressed on, reciting a paddler’s mantra – keep your paddle moving and in the water. Balance depends upon this mantra. And slowly, at about a mile an hour, I made my way by Fort Point. There, the land falls away, the bay expands, and then the water relaxed.
A little later, after a rest on wonderfully named Rogue Island, I turned west and paddled an easy last leg in the mildest of breezes. I could have closed my eyes as I eased slowly home over my companion water.
More still to learn, I thought as I reviewed both day and chart that evening. As Henry Thoreau reminds us again and again, every day asks for our best attention, even when we’re on charted waters.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Have not the fireflies in the meadow relation to the stars above, etincelant [twinkling]? When the darkness comes, we see stars beneath also. … Do not the stars, too, show their light for love, like the fireflies?” ~ Thoreau’s journal, June 16, 1852
This month, I’ve made a habit of walking in the early evening. Around 7:30 p.m. I head west. I move from my native suburban-scape to the confinement of small city streets: first passing 1950s brick homes set back on sizable yards, then pacing past older row houses with front porches crammed full of chairs and toys. Eventually I turn a corner and come back. My circular route is about 20 blocks long and takes most of an hour to finish. Along the way, I seek out Nature. I’m apt to encounter bounding squirrels and rabbits, squawking robins and catbirds, and weeds and wildflowers in bloom. I consider this walk an exercise for both physical and mental health. I look forward to it.
But one day in the middle of June, I got a late start. The sun was dropping quickly as I made my way toward it. Already the day lilies and other light-attuned flowers were closing up for the night. I figured I wouldn’t see much out and about. I knew my route well by this time, so I was in little danger of stumbling or fumbling, no matter how dark it got. Still, I know I walked a little faster than usual so I could get home before true nightfall. Silly me, I didn’t think to bring a flashlight.
As I hustled past a strip of edge woods, I stopped abruptly. Had I seen a little light in the foliage? Or were my eyes playing tricks on me? Was it already the season for lightning bugs? I waited a few seconds, and a tiny light blinked on and off again. Yes! A lightning bug! Were there more? I waited … and rejoiced that there WERE more. When was the last time I had seen a lightning bug? It seemed like years. And when was the last time I CAUGHT one? Oh now, that would be more like decades.
For the rest of my walk, I craved the sight of the lights. I scanned the open yards and the areas near bushes. All of a sudden it seemed as if lightning bugs were beginning to rise out of the grass, everywhere. (I’ve never called them “fireflies.”) I couldn’t believe it. Was this their first night? Or had I been too house-bound to notice their arrival? It was, I was embarrassed to admit, the latter.
Henry Thoreau thought the lightning bugs shined like stars come to earth. (His journal entry posing this idea sounded similar to the time he saw clouds reflected in Walden Pond and wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”) But I didn’t look skyward to see if the stars had come out yet. My eyes were focused at ground level. I loved seeing these little flyers and their lights. I was a block from home when I decided that I wanted to catch a lightning bug before going in for the night.
“Where there was only one firefly in a dozen rods, I hastily ran to one which had crawled up to the top of a grasshead and exhibited its light, and instantly another sailed in to it, showing its light also; but my presence made them extinguish their lights. The latter retreated, and the former crawled slowly down the stem. It appeared to me that the first was a female who thus revealed her place to the male, who was also making known his neighborhood as he hovered about, both showing their lights that they might come together. It was like a mistress who had climbed to the turrets of her castle and exhibited there a blazing taper for a signal, while her lover had displayed his light on the plain.”
~ Thoreau’s journal, June 14, 1851
Leave it to Henry to create a medieval metaphor for the mating rituals of the lightning bug. I laughed at the thought of him running after them. But then I did the same thing. It sure is a challenge: to see in the dusk and to discern tiny dark and flying bodies against the dark background of the yard. The trick is to focus on one light. Let it blink a few times. Find and follow the moving body with your eyes. Then put your hand below the bug and lift it up. With any luck, the critter will be in your palm. Blinking.
I ran after one and missed it, and ended up with an empty hand. I homed in on another one and missed again. Fortunately, I was alone on the street; I hoped no one was watching from a window. Darn it, I used to be able to do this when I was growing up. Catching lightning bugs should be easy. How could I forget the technique? This should be just like riding the proverbial bicycle.
As often happens, the third time was the charm. When I brought up my hand, a lightning bug was in it. I held my breath as the little guy walked to the tip of one finger. I said hello, told it how beautiful it was, thanked it for letting me catch it, and wished it well. It spread its wings and took off into the air. I watched it blink away.
I was still smiling when I unlocked my door and walked back inside.
Caveat: This is not a post that takes us out into the redemptive natural world, at least not at its outset.
I had never respected the government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back a innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. – Thoreau, from the essay, Slavery in Massachusetts.
I can’t shake (don’t really want to) the sadness and horror I feel at the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina. Often, when I feel this way, I turn out toward the trees and hills for solace, but the image of the gunman (gun-boy) keeps following me, as does the loss of fellow citizens at prayer. And so I’ve turned from the outside in; I will write a bit and perhaps understand a little more about how the face and force of terror can follow us everywhere. And maybe that writing will show me a way to fight the helplessness I feel in the face of our ongoing arming and shooting of ourselves.
Early reports call the gun-boy a “loner,” and that term seeks, I think, to isolate, to suggest that he is singular and not representative. But that seems a lie. The gun-boy is from somewhere; he is rooted in white supremacist cant, and he does represent a part of our society that feels it has the right to suppress and murder anyone who “gets out of line” and is not white. The gun-boy and his ilk are terrorists. And they hope through instilled fear to return to or perpetuate a system where terror is institutional. Slavery was clearly such a system.
And so the gun-boy represents also a larger section of society that believes in some closet of the mind that those with colored skin don’t somehow measure up…because their skin is colored.
Sometimes, uncertain of words or unsure how to settle a roil of emotions, I turn to Henry Thoreau’s writing for its calm, lucid surfaces, even as I know that strong sub-currents lie beneath them. But in this angry time laced with disgust, I turn instead to his turbulent essay, Slavery in Massachusetts. In it a deeply angry Thoreau takes up the case of Anthony Burns, a runaway slave captured in Massachusetts in 1854 and the last slave to be returned to the south from that state. He tallies the extreme force and cost that society gathers to uphold the corrupt Fugitive Slave Law, and he wonders aloud if it is time for revolution. In short he goes at the system that oppresses and at each person who contributes to that system.
How, all this makes me wonder in my whiteness, do I contribute to the culture from which the gun-boy comes? And how do I oppose it?
Without straying too far into territory that requires many words and whose cross-currents are also strong, I will say that racial identity seems to me a construct that allows us to locate “the other” by pointing to difference. And, as a social construct, it can be enforced (e.g. Jim Crow laws) or denied (e.g. whiteness). Still, whiteness is such a construct, and it seems as easy to unhorse it intellectually as it is difficult to minimize its influence culturally. Simple ancestry suggests its silliness: whatever your assigned or held race, go back 10 generations and consider your 1024 ancestors, those people leading to the current point of this chevron, you. What are the chances that all of them are of the same cast, same source? Unless you are from a newly discovered and isolated group on some unforeseen and overlooked island, the chances are zero. Zero for you, zero for the gun-boy, zero for everyone.
Taking away membership, however, hasn’t been particularly effective as a way of promoting understanding and peace; perhaps replacing it is a better route.
I turn again to Henry Thoreau, who seems to have kept his balance, even when he felt himself “wholly within hell.” What did he do? It seems that he worked daily – both at his studies and writing, his life’s work, and at his relationships, both human and Natural. Every day, on foot and in writing, he sought connection and understanding; he went out to find them. The membership he discovered and developed finally was, I think, his greatest achievement.
End Note: it occurs to me that in making this post, I turned instinctively to Thoreau’s essays, and now I recall an old lesson: that the word “essay” comes from the French word essayer, meaning to try, attempt. That’s the work of the day and the day.
By Corinne H. Smith
“We too are out, obeying the same law with all nature. Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, March 20, 1858
When I picked up the phone, I heard nothing but panic in the voice in the receiver. The words came loud and fast and all in one breath: “There’s-a-baby-bird-in-my-driveway-and-the-mother-flew-away-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do!!!”
I didn’t recognize the voice at first, and the only words I caught for sure were “baby bird.” I switched the phone to the other ear so I could hear the person better. “I’m sorry, what?”
She repeated herself, this time a little slower and clearer. “There’s a baby bird in my driveway, and the mother flew away, and I don’t know what to do!”
Ah. It was my friend Marie. A city girl who moved to the country.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m not sure you need to DO anything. What happened?”
She was still flustered. “When I came home just now and parked my car, I saw something moving in the dirt, sort of jumping around. Then I saw an even smaller thing with it, like a little ball of fur. I turned the motor off and sat there and watched. I realized these were two little gray and brown birds, and one was awfully tiny. I got out of the car, and the bigger one flew away. But the smaller one didn’t. I walked past it and onto the porch, and it still didn’t leave. I thought, this can’t be right. That’s when I called you.”
“This stuff happens,” I assured her. “A baby robin was in my yard in the same situation a few weeks ago. It was chirping outside my bathroom window, sitting on the ground, all by itself.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Nothing. I went outside later, and I saw a mother bird with the baby. She was leading it under a bush for protection. They were gone the next time I looked.”
“I don’t have any bushes in my yard,” Marie said. I knew she was right, because I’ve been to her house. She has some tall pine trees hovering over her roof. But there is no natural lower shelter where a ground-bound creature in potential danger could hide. And it was already dusk. Predators would come out soon. I tried to think of something she could take out to help. A cardboard box set on its side, maybe?
“Aw, the poor thing,” she said. “It’s still sitting out there. Clearly, it can’t fly.” Now she was watching the scene from her front window. “How did it get here in the first place?” she wondered.
“Maybe it was a first flight gone awry.”
What is it about baby birds – or really, about any small wild animals – that makes us think we’re responsible for their rescue? Sure, there may be times when we need to intervene. But in most cases, adult birds know better than we do how to resolve bird challenges. This was not the first time in history that a fledgling didn’t have a clue.
I started to ask Marie if she had a box when she interrupted me. “Oh, the bigger bird came back! Look at that, it’s hopping. And now the little one is hopping, too.” She laughed. “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before. The adult takes a few hops toward the street, and then it looks back to see if the baby is following. It’s chattering, too. It could be saying, ‘Look, this is the way we do it.’ Oh, this is funny! I’ve never seen this kind of thing before.” And she provided a hop-by-hop description as the pair moved slowly toward a neighbor’s yard that was full of both manmade and natural lawn decorations.
“Uh-oh, the baby stopped in the middle of the road. It’s pooped. It’s not going anywhere now. What if a car comes?” On my end, I thought this was an unlikely event. Marie lives in a very quiet neighborhood, and only close residents drive on her road. And anyway, Mom or Dad Bird persisted and insisted. After a quick breather, the two continued to make steady progress.
“Almost there, they’re almost across. Oh, wow! Other birds are flying in now. One, two, three, maybe four or five. They’re chattering too. It’s as if they were waiting to see what would happen, and now they’re cheering the baby on. ‘It’s okay now,’ they’re saying. ‘You’re back together with us.’” I couldn’t help but smile at this welcome outcome.
“It takes a village,” I said.
“ … to raise a baby bird!” Marie finished. We both laughed. Potential tragedy seemed to have been averted.
“What will happen now?” she asked.
“Hopefully, they’ll teach it to fly.” We could only cross our fingers. Marie turned away and didn’t see whether the small flock left by land or by air. By the time she thought to look again, she saw no little brown birds.
Our watching done, we said our goodbyes and hung up the phones.
Mark this as a day when one little bird and two grown-up humans
learned something new.
“I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise…” – Walden (from the chapter Brute Neighbors and its famous “Pretty Game” section, where Thoreau plays with a loon on Walden Pond)
The bird breaks surface ten feet to the right of my bow. On this nearly windless day beneath a bright sun, the sudden stir of water startles me, breaks a reverie brought on by repeated paddle strokes and the silky parting of my boat’s passage. My boat and vision settle; there he is, looking at me, loon.
Later, I’ll learn that he is probably a juvenile in his 2nd year. Loons père and mère are inland on northern lakes during this, their nesting time; their earlier successes are here along the coast, the loon equivalent of high school it seems, waiting their paired, parental turns.
Today, a young loon’s life looks pretty good to me, and for some minutes we pay attention to each other – I sit still in my boat and stare out from the dark little cave of my cap; the loon faces away and angles his head so I’m in view. But he too stays put. As a minute passes, I feel a little thread of connection. Perhaps the loon senses something, because he dives immediately, and I am watching empty water.
Well, I think, that’s as long a close look as you’ve ever had, probably time to press on. And I do just that, pushing my paddle shaft forward, driving the blade on the other side back; my boat sidles ahead. Then, the spirit of the day catches me up again, and I drift.
Here he is again, ten feet to my right. We resume eyeing each other; we drift on the half-knot tide; someone presses pause; another minute passes. Then, he dives again.
Well, that’s surely it, I think. Any more of this and you’ll be calling him brother. Still I drift, reluctant to take any action, to stir any water, to reach for the rest of the day. If I had outriggers to keep me from tipping, I could easily slip into a nap.
Oh, it’s you brother loon. And now I wish I had an offering – a little fish perhaps, a tiny amulet for your neck. I offer instead an awkward attempt at “talk.” My poor tremolo makes you turn your head, as if you can’t quite believe your hearing. I warble again.
Really, his posture seems to say, if you are going to speak, at least learn the language. He dives again, and this time he does not return. A quarter mile away, some seals mutter on their ledge. They sound a bit like dogs. Perhaps they are discussing the odd sound rising from that nearby boat. Perhaps I’ll paddle over for a talk.
Added note in response to a query: I didn’t paddle over to the seals, who were hauled out on a ledge. I know enough not to stress them and their possible pups with my approach, which would make them splash into the water from their ledgy lolling. My narrative ending was more in tribute to the sort of drift-and-muse brought on by my time with the loon, a sort of closeness I’d not experienced before.
June 10th: It’s a short drive from home to the site of the Captain William A. Fitzgerald USN, Recreation and Conservation Area in Brunswick, Maine. A few years ago the US Navy decamped from Brunswick, and this is one of the parcels of land that reverted to the town after more than 50 years of Navy use. It’s an open, rumpled landscape of sand and grass and brush, stippled with some pitch pines, and now is the time to help it toward the sand-grass plain it wants to be, naturally.
So five of us, working as the town’s Conservation Commission, arrived at the battered gate, took the old access road in and pulled up at the evening’s work – a clump of invasive knotweed. The weed, first brought to North America as an ornamental in the late 19th century, was well rooted, and, from its stand, clearly eyeing the acres of open ground around. We were doped for bugs and tick wary, and we had our cutters and loppers ready to have at the knotweed.
The setting – former naval base – the term “invasive, and our “attack” on it had cast my mind in a military set. As I reached a thumb-thick stalk of knotweed that rose to head height before me, Henry Thoreau flashed to mind. He too did battle with invasive weeds, though their invasion was not a trans-oceanic one. Still, as he labored among his beans during year one at Walden, he joined with the weeds that would crowd out his beans; he went at them with fervor:
A long war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me come to their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty, crest-waving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust. -Walden
Ah, the mock heroic. And yet, in its dailiness, in its usualness, the real heroic too. This work of helping the land say, Beans, or, in our case, Grass, is part of the cultivation that forms culture, that, in the long run, helps us “to know beans.”
I sized up this knotty Hector and cut him down.
Well, all this metaphorical battling is a bit bloody for what we actually did, but just as Thoreau came “to know beans” through his close contact with them, we too came to know knotweed. And that brought me a little closer to knowing the variousness of this piece of land and what it might become. And I gained also a sense of knotweed’s tenacity and power. We may have leveled this stand, but clearly, the weed would be back for another round.
So too would we.
Salmon, shad, and alewives were formerly abundant here, and taken in weirs by the Indians … until the dam and afterward the canal at Billerica, and the factories at Lowell, put an end to their migrations hitherward; though it is thought that a few more enterprising shad may still occasionally be seen in this part of the river…. Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again, to be explored by new migratory shoals. – A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Yes, it often seems that hope is measured in “thousands of years,” but every so often it shows up as more immediate; sometimes there’s even a human helping hand.
May 25th: It’s the day after the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Festival, but when we arrive a little before noon, the gravel lot is mostly full, even as the festival signage is down. For the first time this year, the sun is summer hot. We cross over a small bridge, and I look down into the clear water flowing toward the salt pond downstream. We are at what’s called the head of the tide – fresh water upstream to our left, salt to the right. We’re here to see the anadromous alewives as they complete their spawning swim from the sea to Damariscotta Lake, which is exactly 42 feet above this meeting of waters. Up those feet they must go…without feet, of course.
The tents for the festival are still pitched, but only a stain from a dwindling pile of melting ice suggests that yesterday this flat spot by the stream was full of noisy human celebration, including the chance to eat the smoked brethren of those swimming by.
We idle forward and turn left, upstream by some buildings that once made use of the river running by; the falls rise ahead, and just across the narrow river it’s impossible to miss a squall of gulls. They are sleek and loud; for them the festival happens every day of the spring run. Also across the river at the fall’s base lies a stretched curtain of orange plastic meant to discourage ambitious fish, who would go right at the impossible falls. Instead they are meant to aim right, where a small, rounded pool empties into the river. Above that pool, another, and another, and on…up; the ladder rises. Now, in these pools six-or-so feet across, we can see the concentrated fish in dark tens as they circle, gathering, we suppose, strength and the fishy equivalent of resolve for the next climb to the next pool a foot above.
A narrow path runs up beside the pools, and we climb its shallow slope. At pool ten, we lean on the railing and watch the swimming swirl of fish; then, we begin to watch the thick muscle of descending water from pool eleven; we watch it closely. Do alewife jump upstream like salmon, leaping then lagging back, then repeating until they gain the next bit of slackened water? No fish breaks the surface, but there, there goes a black streak close against the dark brown stone underwater; up goes a fish, and another, another still…ten in a minute. So they rise, one by one, pool by pool.
Later, at the top of the ladder, we lean again on the railing and watch the portal where the placid lake water begins to gather speed before disappearing down stream into the ladder. To the left a swirl of 30 fish spins in the currentless water- What now? their swimming seems to ask; What now? Then, apparently at some signal, they shoot away up lake as a pack; the water is empty; its dark olive bottom vacant…for a bit. Nearby, we can make out the outline of a long-sunken skiff.
A fish appears. It seems just that – appearance from nowhere. Another materializes. And now, if we watch closely, we can see each quick dark streak as each alewife reaches a summer of procreation and slow swimming. It is the promise lake.
Back downstream, we pause again at the ladder’s outset, where the aspirants gather in the quick water, amid the claque of gulls. Up close, the gulls look huge, their wing span equal to the spread arms of an adult human. A gull lifts up and drops into the water, beak down; he lifts his head and flaps up into the air again. From his beak a full fish protrudes, its tail flipping still. Other gulls zero in on their successful relation; he tips back his head and swallows the eight-inch fish whole, chokes it down in a hurry. His neck swells like a stuffed sock, and his relatives veer away, as if to say, “Aw, Chuck bolted another down whole; Chuck’s no fun.” They settle again to watching: for fish near the surface, and each other. Within a minute four more gulls catch fish and, just like Chuck, they bolt them whole, each taking the fish down head first.
In 2013, an estimated 900,000 alewives made it to Damariscotta Lake, even after people and gulls removed their share. Who knows what this year’s tally will be? During this 30 minutes, we’ve seen a few hundred of that tally climb an inspired and inspiring ladder, living on into one of the earth’s best stories of return.
As we turn to go, hundreds more alewives press on upstream. The water roars; the gulls squall, dive and squabble; urgency reigns. So too does life.
Here’s the web address for the folks who have restored the fish ladder. The site is rich with information and its photo gallery is superb.
June 2, 1860: “A catbird has her nest in our grove. We cast out strips of white cotton cloth all of which she picked up and used. I saw a bird flying across the street with so long a strip of cloth, or the like, the other day, and so slowly that at first I thought it was a little boy’s kite with a long tail.” – Journal
They are four, our shells gathered from a recent beach-walk – somehow a few, and not always the pristine ones, make it into a pocket and then the car each time we go. And for the past few days they’ve been mellowing on the front deck, waiting either inside arrangement or return to the beach on a next walk.
Yesterday, however, the shells began to move. I’d been out for a walk in local woods, and when I ambled back home, two of the shells were gone. Not far, mind you; they had shifted…somehow…to the far side of the driveway, where, amid the pine needles, they looked lost. I shrugged and put them back with their brethren.
The next morning the same two shells had vanished again. Again, not far: this time they were on the front lawn. I picked them up, puzzled over them a bit, placed them in their foursome and began to wonder – who or what either objects to these shells or finds fascination in them? Later in the day they were back in the driveway. Our resident chipmunk? One of the myriad gray squirrels? The chickens that reside in the pines across the street? Some unknown skulker? Or, perhaps, the catbird that “talks” to me whenever I’m in the yard, following me and speaking in its many tongues wherever I go.
I replaced the shells, evening came on, and, after dinner, I took a stroll around the neighborhood, going, for a change counterclockwise. Part way around I realized that I’d arrive back at our house unseen from the shells’ point of view. As I neared home, I slowed to a quiet creep, and then peered around the car’s fender and in at the shells.
Aha! There he was, suspect #1 during my afternoon mulling of possible shell-shifters. The catbird, he of a hundred voices; also he of the rhododendron along our house front, which borders the deck of shells.
As I watched, the catbird seized the small conch that is easiest lifting and hopped two steps into the driveway; then, with a flick of the head, he flung it a foot farther. Hop hop; grab the conch; hop hop; fling. Repeat until you reach the driveway’s middle.
Satisfied with this new placement, the catbird returned to the other shells, tapped and considered them for a long minute, and then – who knows why – he flew into the rhododendron and began to sing. I left as he sang what now I hear as his shell-moving song.
Now, it’s night. The gray tree frogs are calling indefatigably, and some unidentified laugher has come, laughed and gone. I wonder if the catbird has been back to the shells, if under night’s cover, he’s been hopping and nudging the largest of the three toward deck’s edge. I’ll see in the morning.
By Corinne H. Smith
When Henry Thoreau came upon a plant he didn’t know, he described it as best as he could in his journal or field notebook. He counted leaves and petals and other parts, and he noted the habitat where it grew. Sometimes he drew a picture of it. Sometimes he could later identify the specimen by consulting his botany books. One of his favorites was “Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States,” compiled by Asa Gray of Harvard. Amateur scientists from all over the country sent samples of the plants in their region to Professor Gray, so he could include them in his next edition. Still, well into the 1850s, not every American plant was known or classified. At times Henry had to admit in his notes that something he had found on his own was “not in Gray.”
I thought of this phrase back in late March and early April, after I saw a patch of beautiful early Spring wildflowers that I didn’t recognize.
I had to deliver flyers to a home-run business in our area after hours. The place was in the midst of having its front steps rebuilt, so the main path was condoned off. I had to make a detour and step across two lawns to reach the sidewalk leading to the porch. That’s when I saw them: dozens of low yellow flowers covering most of the front lawn. They were wonderful! They were new to me. And I probably would have walked right past them if the steps hadn’t been broken. I tiptoed around the plants, took care of business, then came back to look at the flowers again. With no camera in my pocket, I studied them as closely as I could. I wanted to memorize them and burn their images into my brain. Surely once I got home, I could figure out what these flowers were.
But once I drove away, other tasks intervened, and I was distracted. I hoped to go back and to take a good picture of the flowers. By the time I did this a week later, the petals had closed up and they had turned dull. I took some photos anyway, thinking I could match the distinctive leaves with the guidebooks in my home library.
This time I took action. I gathered all of my references together – the Grays of today – and I searched for these yellow flowers on the pages. I thought I had an advantage over Henry Thoreau because his guidebooks didn’t include photographs or even line drawings. Mine did. And some were even organized by the color of the flower. Surely I could just turn to the yellow section, and I would spot my new discoveries there.
But I didn’t. Nothing on any of these pages matched these flowers. They were “not in Gray,” so to speak. How could this be? They were growing profusely in that yard. They couldn’t be unique or endangered or rare.
Maybe the owner could tell me what they were, I thought. I found the e-mail address of the business, and I sent a message asking about the flowers in the front yard. A woman named Claire replied a day or two later. “Those little yellow flowers have been popping up every year for at least as long as we have owned this house. (38 years),” she wrote. But she obviously couldn’t offer any more advice.
I was frustrated. How could something this easy become so difficult? I casually searched online for “yellow flowers ground cover.” None of the results looked good. This was exactly the wrong way to go about this investigation. Gradually the right approach came to me: When in doubt, ask.
A passel of my Facebook friends are naturalists or gardeners. I figured someone online could help. On April 7, I posted my photo and posed the question to the group. “Does anyone know what this ground cover is? It had brilliant yellow flowers (multiple petals, more than 4 or 5) two weeks ago. Now they’re gone. But I still want to know what this plant is. It’s growing on a shaded bank of someone’s yard in southeastern Pennsylvania. And the owner doesn’t know what it is. She says it’s been coming up each spring for more than 30 years, though. It’s not swamp buttercup. I can’t match it to anything in my plant books. Darn.”
Bingo! By the end of the day, I had my answer. After several questions from others and a few miscues, Thoreau Farm master gardener Debbie Bier stepped up and supplied the correct name. My new yellow friends were called Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. I had never heard of this species. But the online photos matched what I remembered seeing. Yes!
I went back to my reference books and looked up the flowers again, thinking I had missed them the first time. I hadn’t. None of the books listed Winter aconite by common or by scientific name. It’s a European native, which may explain its absence in American books. I was lucky enough to learn of Winter aconite only by sight, by being inquisitive, and by knowing someone who knew its identity.
It’s too bad Henry Thoreau didn’t have access to digital photography and Facebook to help him identify his own stash of unknowns. Using our connections today, he could probably solve the mysteries of every one of his plants that during his time were “not in Gray.”
First, a disclaimer: our Commons, though satisfyingly treed and amply berried, has no bears, though some of us may hope for the odd transient, who has a mind to summer at the coast. Still, the nuts and berries found there bring on the mindset of a bear, and so, today I am his or her stand-in; this is my bear’s notebook.
(Disclaimer #2: Henry Thoreau had no experience of bears in shorn Concord, though he liked to imagine his way back to a time when bears were native there.)
These paw-scribed pages are rife with record of what we bears care most about: food. Or the promise of it. Enough food leads to fat, and fat is winter’s warm sleep enabled. So this spring walk looks forward to: food. There is, of course, the time-honored, all-season grubbing for insects. That’s reliable in the way grain may be an everyday part of your diet.
But today, I’m not interested in tearing up logs or clawing into burrows; instead, I have sweetness in and on mind. The wide spacing of this pitch-pine forest leaves plenty of light for the brush beneath the pines, and that light spurs the brush below. And each year, that light concentrates in blueberries that begin to ripen in early July, and then come on for that month’s remainder.
But each year brings also variation – last year’s primo patch is often sparse, and creeping undergrowth can crowd out the low bush blueberries, or spreading crowns can shade out the high bush ones. There’s no burning over the brush of the Commons, and so each summer any berry-intent being needs to scope out the best patches. When is that best done? Now.
How so, you may want to know. Later, when the berries are first green, they blend with the leaves, and, from any distance they are hard to see. Then, even as they go purple and blue, often the best clusters are beneath leaves that have grown dense with summer. But now, amid the pollinating whirr of bees, the patches thick with white flowers are easy to spot. There, given the annual bee-brought miracle, will be the thickest gatherings of berries.
And so, as I amble here, then there in these woods, my head swinging first to this side, then to that, I make a bear’s map of these white bursts amid the new green. I’ll be back to each bush in 6 or 7 weeks.
As Robert Frost once wrote, “You come too.”
On July 19th, 1842, Henry Thoreau and his friend Richard Frederick Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s brother) set out, “resolved to scale the blue wall which bounds the western horizon,” or the long-looked-at Wachusett. Even so, Thoreau was “not without misgivings, that thereafter no visible fairy land would exist for us.”
Still, by walk’s (and essay’s) end, he had this to say: “And now that we have returned to the desultory life of the plain, let us endeavor to import a little of that mountain grandeur into it.”
So it is in this expansive season that often sees us walking toward horizons blue with distance and often imagined. Up then, I go up on a recent morning, with the blue wall of ridge rising along the valley’s west. Like Thoreau and Fuller, I left early, with the eastern light at my back; but unlike Thoreau and Fuller, I had only a short walk before I began to climb that blue wall, and I soon fell into the meditative cadences of climbing, all built on the audible work of breathing. It is a different sort of meditation, but contemplative nonetheless.
As often happens to me when walking is also working, some time slipped by without my noticing it. I came back to full awareness as the light shifted: first it grew dark (I had entered a spruce grove) and a fading line of snow glowed, light rising from the forest floor; then, the light intensified ahead of me, and I arrived at a sort of door. Before me was the first set of open ledges in a day of ridge-walking; I had entered the “visible fairy land” of the upper mountains; I was atop the “blue wall.”
It seemed fitting then in this up-there world that the way should have new markers too, guides across the stone where feet leave little sign – cairns. Born of the bare Scottish Highlands, cairns are often simple piles of stones assembled by passersby to indicate that you – walker-next – should pass by this way. And, as both marker of passage and contribution, many of us add a stone as we pass by, especially to small cairns that have suffered from scatter. And so some cairns grow.
Atop the day’s central summit, I stopped to look at the bare stone and then the series ridges, especially those that rise to the north. On the stone, I found inscription, some dating back to Thoreau’s era, the sort of “I was here” writing inspired by the being above the valleys.
And I was reminded again of Thoreau’s Wachusett walk and the essay that flowed from it. Here’s its ending:
We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life [on our return to the valleys] to has its summit, and why from the mountain top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.
Journal, May 19th, 1856: “Thick fog this morning, which lasted late in the forenoon and left behind it rainy clouds for the afternoon.”
It is still. It is quiet. The days of rowdy, sun-stirred air end with this gray morning fog in the trees; it is perfect for a Sunday, the slowest kind of time, contemplative, a piney retreat from the wound-up weeks on either side.
It seems to me that fog’s human expression is unlabored breathing, the slow, quiet in and out of merger with what’s beyond. A morning like this is as close as I come to being a tree, as close, perhaps, as I come to simply being in place. I am not a religious sort, but if I were, I’d say this fog is visible prayer; surely it is subtle song seen.
Thoreau, of course, was not kept in by thick air or promise of rain; instead in the afternoon, he is sailing up the Assabet, when he hears this:”…a traveller riding a long the highway is watching my sail while he hums a tune. How inspiring and elysian to hear when the traveller or laborer from a call to his horse or the murmur of ordinary conversation rises into song! It paints the landscape suddenly as no agriculture , no flower crop that can be raised. It is at once another land, the abode of poetry.”
Many of us have such a rite, often a private moment or meandering that initiates the season. Henry Thoreau, as noted a few posts ago, made ritual of getting his boat onto the river, often forcing the nascent spring into narrow leads of water in the still-dominant ice. There is an excited cadence to his journal’s prose as he caulks his boat, readies for its seasonal baptism.
My own ritual requires a little travel, and so sometimes it must wait a little deeper into this season. But on May’s 3rd day, I awoke and looked up at the mountain I must climb to say, “It’s spring.” That I would climb also back into some north-side drifts of snow and ice made me feel kin to Thoreau as he rowed and shoved his boat through the ice to reach Fairhaven; we both would get to this expansive season, even through ice.
Spring invites all sorts of rites, including, of course, the 6th’s remembrance of Henry Thoreau’s full short life.
The following photos form an impressionistic saunter from the day’s trail And you? Let us know your rite/s?
Said as the French do – ah’ton’cion – P-22 is back in the news.
Forgive me my ongoing fascination with Los Angelinos’ ongoing fascination with mountain lion P-22, who recently turned up tucked in under the deck of a house. As ever with this celebrity feline, this was big news – type P-22 into your search engine for a gander at it.
As the only known successful migrant across a broad freeway, P-22 has come to represent the way the wild insists, even when it arrives at the edge of a wide asphalt river full of people intent on being there… now. And our media attention to him has come to represent – well, what does it say about us and our relations with the wild?
Even as we hem the wild in, and point our various inventions its way, we crave its return. That verb, crave, is intentional. It represents the deep linkage we have with wildness, a current that runs within our bodies at levels far deeper than our Platte-like rational rivers. We would howl (or snarl) at much we encounter daily – the many others who crowd our lives, their presence constant in our peripheral awareness, and, other times, in our faces.
So, when an apex example of that wild shows up under a deck from which we like, perhaps, to contemplate life, the symbolism is irresistible – not far away, ready to emerge from the shadows is a toothy part of self intent on hunting the day; the remnant hairs on our necks and backs rise.
It is a long amble from lion to apple (another recent fascination), but lions had been chased so far from New England in Thoreau’s day, that an apple will have to do as stand-in. And, because it is walking season (every season is, of course, but spring invites more), Easterbrooks Country (Estabrook Woods, today) seems the right destination. If a lion were to be anywhere in the Concord area, Estabrook would welcome it. Here then is Henry Thoreau in his essay Wild Apples:
Some soils, like a rocky tract of the Easterbrooks Country in my neighborhood, are so suited to the apple, that it will grow faster in them without any care, or if only the ground is broken up once a year, than it will in many places with any amount of care. The owners of this tract allow that the soil is excellent for fruit, but they say that it is so rocky that they have not patience to plough it, and that, together with the distance, is the reason why it is not cultivated. There are, or were recently, extensive orchards there standing without order. Nay, they spring up wild and bear well there in the midst of pines, birches, maples, and oaks. I am often surprised to see rising amid these trees the rounded tops of apple- trees glowing with red or yellow fruit, in harmony with the autumnal
tints of the forest.
Fruit of such wildness rising seems a constant yearning for all of us, even as we might shy from having a feline version right beneath us.
Famously, we’ve been told that you can never go home, but you can walk in your own and others’ footsteps. And so, on this April weekend past, given a few hours for wandering, we set out to do just that. We left from the parking area by Bear Garden Hill and aimed first for Walden by the fine, pine-needle-softened trails that lead into the Wright Woods and on to the pond. Then around the pond, its surface rippled by a cool wind, its fisherfolk seemingly stationed every 50 yards along the thin strand that surrounds it during this low water phase. Then back across the Fitchburg Line’s tracks, and down by the Andromeda Ponds – mostly eutrified now – toward Fairhaven, following the flow of old glacial melt. Skirting Fairhaven, where the spring waters had receded just enough to let us pass, and finally returning along the broad Sudbury, stopping a few times to admire the eruptive skunk cabbage in the small, wet valleys above the river.
Here are some sights from along such a way:
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
Wednesday is garbage pick-up day on my street. The recycling truck comes first, usually before breakfast. The regular truck follows a few hours later. My routine is to put the recycling bin out at the curb when I hear the noise of the truck a block away. Then I know I have time to gather the week’s other garbage into a bag or two.
Last week, I placed the recycling bin on the sidewalk just as the sun was coming up. Then I headed back to the house along the driveway. I looked down to admire how green the grass was turning, now that Spring has come and our days are warmer. Suddenly I spotted a white and gray feather lying in the grass near the macadam, all by itself. I picked it up to inspect it. It was blue-jay like, except that it had no blue.
I brought the feather into the house to look at it again. I made the mistake of showing it to one of the cats, who wanted to chew it. I took the feather away from her, washed it off, and put it on a shelf out of her reach.
The recycling truck came along and took our plastics away. When I went out to pick up the empty bin, I looked down at the grass again. Wouldn’t you know, I saw ANOTHER feather! It was very similar to the first. Why hadn’t I seen this one when I spied the other? I had no idea. I brought it in and put it on the shelf, too.
A short time later, I dragged two full garbage bags out to the street. Again, on my return trip, I looked at the grass. And again, here was yet another feather!
Okay, now I began to worry. Next, I expected to stumble upon a dead body. Now that I had found three feathers, I widened my view and searched for more. I soon found an all-gray feather in the front yard, and another striped one on the other side of the driveway. Thank goodness, I had found no dead bird. But there must have been a mishap of some kind. Maybe a stray cat had chased it and nipped at it. Maybe the neighborhood hawk had carried it away. Maybe the bird had gotten too close to a branch and scraped itself, jarring loose a few feathers. I’m not sure that this last scenario ever happens. But then again, I’m not a songbird. How could I know?
A few days later, when I mowed the lawn, I found another gray feather. This brought my total to six. I could study them and look at them more closely, as Mr. Thoreau would have done. The colors suggested that they may have come from a mockingbird. On its own, each multi-colored feather looked like the others. But if I put them side by side, I could see the variations in color. I could see which way the feathers curved. They had come from various parts of the bird’s body. This led me to believe that the hawk was involved, and that the story of these feathers was one of a small yet everyday tragedy.
The first feather, the smallest and brightest, is already my favorite. Whenever I pick it up. I imagine that I feel a life force pulsing from the shaft. This is impossible, I know. The bottom of the quill is tinged with red, too. With remnants of blood? This makes it even
more real, and gives me a connection to the animals, to both prey and predator. I could stare at these feathers for hours in wonder, imagining. Had they belonged to a mockingbird? A nuthatch? A robin? How could I ever know for sure?
It seems like a decent enough exchange: trash for treasure. Even a simple act like taking out the garbage can offer us new discoveries, if we only pay attention. How else could I end up with a collection of six maybe-mockingbird feathers? And what will I find on my next trip to the curb?
Earth Day 1856
I could have chosen randomly
leafing through their pages
pausing here say or
there – so rich
are their records that
even the page-skipper-
bird that I am soon finds
a twig a branch a point
from which to fly
and I can be sure
of a song recorded
somewhere in italics -
chirr whee – to denote
day after day as
they set out to find themselves.
Who then can resist “sailing
in the rain” on April 22, 1856
or sailing with today’s rain coming
on, or the rippling east wind
and finding that even Henry
tried as he held the tiller
to hold too an umbrella
to keep himself dry? Or
knowing that a sudden
“seizure of happiness”
can come on at walk’s end
on this quietest of mornings?
Two Voices: Henry Thoreau and Mary Oliver
Here then, in celebration of this 22nd, are short excerpts from two voices that I turn to when I want to hear from and of the earth, which is another way of saying every day.
Soon after I turned about in Fair Haven Pond, it began to rain hard. The wind was but little south of east and therefore not very favorable for my voyage. I raised my sail and, cowering under my umbrella in the stern, wearing the umbrella like a cap and holding the handle between my knees, I steered and paddled almost perfectly sheltered from the heavy rain…From time to time, from under my umbrella, I could see the ducks spinning away from me, like great bees…But though my progress was slow and laborious, and at length I began to get a little wet, I enjoyed the adventure because it combined to some extent the advantages of being at home in my chamber and abroad in the storm at the same time.
- Henry Thoreau, Journal, April 22, 1856
Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and – it was the most casual of moments – as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity – the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it is a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.
- Mary Oliver, from the essay “The Perfect Days” in the book Long Life.
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry Thoreau
The other day, I pulled my kayak gear from storage. There it was all spread across the driveway, seed of water-wandering for the coming season. Then the obvious arrived in mind: scattered liberally too were hundreds of cones from our local pines – so many that the ground was dark with them in places, all in search of the next spot for a pine. There’s always always always faith in what’s to come. And then I knew where my first paddle would be; I’d aim for an islet and that has its own seed-story.
As fall comes on, I’ve seen them bobbing in the bay like punctuation marks in search of a sentence. Apples, like much that lives along the shore, go overboard sometimes, and where they go once in the water is a matter of wind and current. And, perhaps, some third force – a hand, for instance, or a swimming deer.
Whatever the manner of movement, some years ago, perhaps around the time I was born, an apple fetched up on an islet between the two Goose Islands (Upper and Lower) in Casco’s Middle Bay. How do I know this history? Its long story of growth lies there still.
I first noticed this tree on the north end of the islet during late August while water-ambling in my kayak. From a distance it looked decidedly out of place amid the clutch of sumac and wild roses that ran along the thirty feet of ridge a few feet above the tideline. That’s an apple tree, I thought from a distance, and as I drew near, I saw that it was. The trunk was a foot thick, and, on its inland side, away from the salt-burned foliage, I saw pale apples the size of a baby’s fist.
That islet’s a most unlikely Eden, I thought, and then I went ashore. It took about a minute to circumstroll the islet, and as I edged up under the apple, I could just reach some its spawn. I picked one, turned to an unmarred side, checked for worm-holes and took a bite; the sour saltiness pulled my whole face askew – this apple was tough in so many ways. But I took another bite, worked it hard with my jaws and finally swallowed. So began a ritual that ended only last year – as an act of taking on summer to ready for winter, I always paddled out for a few salt-apples. And out there, miles from any other apple tree, I wondered at this tree’s story and survival only feet from the sea and exposed to the wind that drives waves up the bay.
Last spring’s first paddle took me out to the islet, and even from a half-mile away, I noticed the change – no tree jutted from the north end like a defiant fist. Drawing closer I read the story of the tree’s fall – its trunk lay prone toward the water, and its root-system, which had grown sideways up into the islet’s meager bank was pulled away. Some winter gale or accumulation of ice and snow had toppled the tree, or waves had pulled finally the support from around it.
So no more salty apples, but the remnant trunk is still a story of amazement at how seeds – of life or thought – meander to and root in the most unlikely Edens.
And, when you come to think of it, isn’t every Eden unlikely?
Added practical note: pine cones make wonderful fire-starters; with their rich load of pitch, they take flame from a single match and burn fast and hot. Or, if your fire is flagging, a few cones on its coals will flare under added wood. I gathered a large bag full in a few minutes (and, as a bonus, my fingers smelled of pitch for the rest of the day).
By Corinne H. Smith
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
On Friday morning, I zipped over to an adjacent town just before 9 a.m. I wanted to hit a public library book sale in its first minutes, before I had to go to work.
I don’t “need” more books, mind you. My bedside stack of to-be-reads stands more than two feet tall. I buy one or two more from online sources at least once a month. And I work part-time at a used bookstore, for heavens sakes. Still, I had to go to this sale to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on some other crucial titles. I knew I had only 15 or 20 minutes to waste – uh, I mean spend — there.
I pulled into the parking lot just as the doors opened. A few dozen early birds hurried in ahead of me. As I walked into the large room, I saw that the volunteers had marked the tables well. The LITERATURE and NONFICTION signs caught my eye first, and I decided to save these sections for last. I started instead with FICTION and MYSTERY. I began the usual cock-headed zombie walk of the experienced book sale customer.
This was an average-sized sale, with many more hardbacks than paperbacks. I soon saw familiar books. Ones I managed and distributed as a long-time librarian. Ones I once owned and have since given up. Others – both read and unread — that still sit on my shelves at home. It’s like Old Home Week when I go to one of these sales. I had to smile at some of the titles I saw, remembering. I couldn’t dawdle, though. And I kept bumping into people going the other way.
I used to devour mysteries like potato chips. But I’m not always in the mood for them. More often I move toward books about nature, writing, nature writing, and personal motivation. I made short work of MYSTERY here.
I picked up James Michener’s “The Novel” and carried it along as I kept looking. I soon realized that I didn’t want to own this book; and if I wanted to read a copy, I could always borrow it. Had I read it before? I thought I had. I may have even owned a paperback copy of it, once. After a few minutes, I returned Mr. Michener to an open slot on the FICTION table.
I headed toward LITERATURE. This was the smallest section of the sale, and the pickings here were slim. Nearly every book was recognizable as a classic: American, English, even some from old Greek storytellers, like Homer. Not many selections appealed to me. I rounded the corner to scrutinize the other side of the table. Well, what do you know? Here was a copy of Walden. Hello, old friend. Hello, Henry. I may have even gasped when the one-word title caught my eye.
It was the Great Illustrated Classics edition, first printed in 1946. I’ve seen it on many library shelves over the years. Now here this one sat, right next to Catcher in the Rye, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Great Gatsby, and biographies of Shakespeare and Mark Twain.
It wasn’t a library discard. It was fresh and unscathed. The hinges held perfectly, almost as if they were brand new. I opened it up and looked for a past owner’s name. I didn’t see one. I did see the price mark of four dollars. I put it back. I stared at it for at least a minute. Should I, or shouldn’t I?
I didn’t “need” this “Walden.” I already have a few key editions that I like. And of course, this wasn’t my favorite version of all time. That’s the 1970s paperback that I read in my senior year of high school (See my blog post, “MY Walden,” http://thoreaufarm.org/2013/08/my-walden/, for this story.) After a minute of contemplation, I sighed and turned away, empty handed.
Running out of time, I speed-sauntered around the rest of NONFICTION and BIOGRAPHY. I glanced quickly through SELF-HELP. In the end, I took three books to the checkout clerks: A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean (which I read in the 1980s but never owned); In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan (which I hadn’t gotten to yet, though I’ve read a few of Pollan’s other books); and an original hardcover of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve read all of Gladwell’s books by borrowing them from libraries. I knew I had since bought a used paperback of one of them, and I couldn’t remember which one it was. I decided to take the risk on this Blink. It was in excellent condition.
And what of that “Walden”? I decided to leave it behind. I hoped it would find another home with another devoted reader. Perhaps it was fated to make a difference in someone else’s life. How could I stand in its way?
[Many thanks to Jeannette Weitzel, who served as photographer, by request and at the spur of the moment. And FYI: I now own two copies of Blink.]
Recently, at the end of a long day, we pulled into our driveway ready to re-up for the slow arrival of Maine’s spring. The dirt-infused snow was still deep on the front yard, and the bushes around the house still slumped beneath the winter’s weight. But there in greeting also was a lozenge of fire, red atop the rhododendron – the cardinal who knows our yard as his territory looked directly at us and offered announcement, sort of a squall of welcome. What, he seemed to say, are you going to do about the feeder out back?
So, before unpacking the car, I went to that feeder and shook out the residue of seed husks, then filled it with fresh provender.
This morning brought reward in familiar flurries. Chickadees and nuthatches, including a red-breasted one, flew in and lit to take their accustomed single seeds, which they then carried to a nearby pine. House sparrow arrived and performed his usual task – grabbing and then flinging seeds here and there before settling on one to actually eat.
The sparrow must be the cardinal’s friend because not long after he’d flung seeds this way and that, the cardinal stopped by for the sunflower seeds now on the ground. Ever-alert, he hopped and sorted among the downed seeds until he found one he liked; then he split the husk and downed the seed in a gulp. Then on to the next.
Yesterday, the goldfinches arrived. There, suddenly, they were, looking like yellow thumbs (up).
So too, one of the neighborhood cats, for whom I am a backyard Maori – unaccustomed to being chased, cats run from the expletive-spewing, hand-waving emergence from our backdoor; then at the fringe of the woods, they always look back in further disbelief, before vanishing.
I’d welcome some not-too-antisocial advice about discouraging cat-visits. I’m loathe to go to the warning sting of a b-b or pellet gun, but, clearly, I’ve considered it. Perhaps coyote urine, easily purchased these days? Perhaps you have a favorite solution? Perhaps I will post our little stamp of land, alert our neighbors, and then have at whatever slinking cats appear.
Or, perhaps, I can entice our local rooster to hang out more in our yard; the cats seem wary of him (as am I).
We’re a little too suburban to need to heed the advice to take down our feeders in April as guard against bear-visits – no bears live in and wander our local woods, even as I see sometimes a fox step from them and the wild percussion of our pileated woodpeckers sets my toe tapping.
And so, until summer starts offering its menu, I’ll keep heeding the cardinal and filling the feeder. Surely, I get more back than I give.
A purple finch showed up in our yard yesterday, just hours ahead of the last (I hope) snowfall. And my daily footwork was again suffused with bluebird song. These birds then triggered a rereading of an essay that had caught my eye but then slipped into the welter of partially-read pieces.
You, if a reader of this blog, have grown used to our stepping onto the springboard of Thoreau’s journal writings; from there, we often dive into something daily, some moment of the local world. Today we climb a little higher, then drop a little farther from the platform of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay, Carbon Capture, ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/carbon-capture) in the April 6th New Yorker. From (and in) it, we consider the vast challenge of climate change and the sliver of effect we call personal response. Franzen’s piece, the best response to this calamity that I’ve read, brings us back to Henry Thoreau – not by specific mention, but by its suggestion that local attention and conserving work can be redemptive, can be a daily way forward in a difficult time.
In struggling to come to personal terms with climate change and its vast pronouncement, Franzen writes of birds, of local study and care that echoes Thoreau’s understanding that, when it came to universal concerns and understanding, he had “traveled a good deal in Concord.” Franzen’s central thought is direct: climate change is real and unstoppable; its scale so dwarfs a person’s efforts as to negate them, and so, even as large environmental organizations and figures recommend combating it, focus on climate change draws a person away from work where she or he can have effect, can live a life – working for conservation of habitat for birds and other animals, for example.
As he considers himself and us, Franzen identifies two central strains of thought that divide us: the Puritan, guilty-as-charged school and the positive, life-affirming Franciscan school. In shifting his focus from guilt-inducing efforts to have personal effect on climate change to life-affirming work for bird habitats, Franzen chooses life and whatever measure of joy it may contain. His implied question is a simple one: do you want to live a guilt-ridden, powerless life or a commitment-suffused one?
Franzen is not naive. He knows that climate change will alter habitats, will affect every thing. But he points out that global scale trouble and guilt finally overwhelm and paralyze. If, every time you have an effect – which is of course, every minute – you feel guilty about it, you step finally away from such wearying awareness. If instead, you feel you are working at least some of the time for some small sector of life, local habitat, for example, you can be buoyed by small victories, lifted by your embrace of the local.
Thoreau, of course, knew the lure and redemption of the local. His journal is a record of engagement and, yes, love, of where he walked and what he found.
Journal, April 9th, 1856: 7 A.M. – To Trillium Woods…The air is full of birds, and as I go down the causeway, I distinguish the seringo note. You have only to come forth each morning to be surely advertised of each newcomer into these broad meadows. Many a larger animal might be concealed, but a cunning ear detects the arrival of each new species of bird. These birds give evidence that they prefer the fields of New England to all other climes, deserting for them the warm and fertile south. Here is their paradise. It is here they express the most happiness by song and action.
I have taken a nuanced, developed essay and simplified it (without too much damage, I hope). It is worth reading in its fullness. Just as the birds singing in today’s new snow remind that today is there to live in its fullness.
Neil Sedaka and Henry Thoreau – not your usual pairing. Still, both share a fascination with iced water’s set world. And with the grip it has on us. Both also wrote words, lyrics, that can take over the mind.
So it was that during our one-day spring (55 degrees!) last Friday, I approached our nearby bay at the shuffle-pace I call running. The snow’s remainders lay in thick strips of drift across the tan fields, and, having just returned from southern sojourn, I was wondering what I’d find. In mid-March, when we’d left in search of spring, the ice on the bay was more than a foot thick, and it stretched beyond the islands a mile off shore; I’d watched a family ski on (frozen) water out to those islands. Not, as we can all agree, a usual winter.
Through the barely budded trees, I could see the water, and it was streaked with white. Ice still!, I thought. As I drew nearer, I saw also gaps in that white, leads of open water colored greeny gray. A low rustling sound rose from the bay – ice rubbing ice, wearing itself away. Neil Sedaka’s lyrics popped into my head (and they are still there): breaking up is hard to do.
Out on the water, a pair of ducks paddled up to one miniature berg and clambered aboard, settling into contented crouch as their small world was jostled by others. A sheet of ice as big as a playing field floated seaward, impelled, it seemed, by some invisible force. Gulls cried through the air. The whole bay was alive.
As I left to return to my shuffle, I tried to force Neil Sedaka from my mind by thinking about Henry Thoreau and his break-up stories of Fairhaven Bay, the expanse of the Sudbury River broad enough to behave like the sea sometimes. Invariably, Thoreau’s spring journals arrive at Fairhaven to chronicle its break-up.
The winter of 1856 bore good resemblance to this year’s – March stayed cold, the snow was deep, ice thickened even as the light grew longer. Thoreau was out and about measuring the ice (nearly two feet thick on Walden) and walking still down the Sudbury’s center in late March. Still, as his long entries about spring signs make clear, he was eager for and alive to the new season.
On April 7th he finally was able to launch his boat:
Launched my boat, through three rods of ice on the riverside…Up river in boat…The first boat on the meadows is as exciting as the first swallow or flower. It is seen stealing along in the sun under the meadow’s edge. One breaks the ice before it with a paddle, while the other pushes or paddles, and it grates and wears against the bows.
And on April 8th, he reached Fair Haven Pond:
By the side of Fair Haven Pond it was particularly narrow. I shoved the ice on the one hand and the bushes and trees on the other all the way…For all this distance, the river for the most part, as well as the pond, was an unbroken field of ice.
“Comma comma down doobie do down down,” I half-sang, “comma comma down…” and my feet aligned their steps to Sedaka’s song.
Breaking with this song is as tough as slipping the grip of winter; O, this will not end soon, I thought. And clearly these days later, even as our ice retreats, it hasn’t.
Breaking up is hard to do. Comma comma…
Added note: a while later, in a tree at a field’s edge, a bluebird sang, then flew, its sky-blue back flashing in the sun.
There is, this morning, the long-running voice of water on tin as the snowmelt falls from the gutter through its metal pipe to ground. Our intense winter gives up its ice grudgingly, but the morning sun says it must, and even ice can’t sass the sun on this 50-degree day.
Ice and water are on my mind because I’ve been thinking back to the work of teaching. The catalyst is an essay written by a former student, now in college, and sent on at my request. Scott recently reread Walden as part of his studies, and I had wondered in a note what struck him on this pass through. My experience has been that Walden is that rare book that bears rereadings across time and human ages.
So, this morning, as the water ran, I settled into a chair and read Scott’s essay. It was – no surprise to me – insightful and clearly written, but beyond that I was taken by its range. Here was writing that suggested that, for Scott, Walden had become a world in which he was free to wander, that the knottiness of its sentences and propositions had given way to a sort of landscape to be sauntered, known and drawn upon easily.
My experience reading Scott’s work made water of another sort of ice – a teacher’s sense of what happens when his students read a long-studied work freezes at the moment of teaching, in the memory of class. But, of course, students move on, flow on; in truth, there is no ice, no fixed sense, at all in their readings. And I have been reminded of this by the morning work of Scott’s words. A paragraph that makes good sense of Thoreau’s “spring work,” his house-building at Walden Pond follows.
May each of you find the flow of spring in your own mornings these days; it seems, as Thoreau knew, just the right time to construct another year.
“The remade origin-myth of Walden Pond runs parallel to the autobiographical account of how Thoreau set up housekeeping there. The communicative closeness with divinity that Thoreau feels so intently during his recorded year is an outgrowth of the etiology that he forms for his “experiment.” It is not incidental that he begins to build a house “near the end of March,” at a time when the “torpid state” of wintertime transforms into a “higher and more ethereal life”; here begins the narrative of seasonality at Walden, which will conclude itself by coming into the same springtime which nurtures Thoreau’s optimistic impulse. As springtime is the morning of the year, it shares the sanctity of the antemeridian hours. “What should be man’s morning work in the world?” Thoreau asks, fervently, in “Economy.” “Morning work” is both sanctified and sanctifying, and what Thoreau chooses to do in the morning – to build a house and thus found his experiment – gains an equally spiritual dimension. Emerson posits, “The knowledge of man is an evening knowledge, vespertina cognitio, but that of God is a morning knowledge, matutina cognitio.” To work in the morning is hence a higher calling which begets a superior form of understanding. House-building, a seemingly human activity, nevertheless has the potential to make Thoreau conversant with the higher truths of divinity. Long after the house is finished, in “The Pond in Winter,” Thoreau recounts that after a turbulent sleep, “I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight.” This is the “morning knowledge” which he has gained, and for which the pond has acted as an intermediary between his human, questioning state and the godly answer.” - Scott Berkley
By Corinne H. Smith
“The question is not what you look at but how you look & whether you see.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, August 5, 1851
We had run out of postage stamps, and I had an important bill to mail. So I shuffled into my shoes and coat and set out walking to the grocery store a block away to buy some. As I passed our backyard, I looked toward the top of the pine tree to check on the leafy squirrel condominium. But right in my line of sight was something else: a large hawk, sitting in the oak tree next to the white pine. I stopped, said a soft “Hello, how are you?” when it looked at me, and turned to walk back and get my camera. A minute later, the visitor was still there, and I snapped a few images.
It was only then, with my concentration focused on the scene, that I realized warning signs I should have been aware of earlier. A single crow-sentry, perched at the top of the same oak, repeated a few urgent notes to anyone who would hear. All of the little birds in the neighborhood murmured lowly from bushy hiding places. And naturally, none of the normal squirrel activity was taking place in our yard. No fuzzy gray critters were digging, retrieving or eating acorns. Our resident squirrels were tucked away in their nest or into other safe havens.
Reluctantly, I continued on with my immediate mission. When I returned, I saw that the hawk had turned around to face the pine. I worried about the squirrels and about having a front-row seat to the natural collision of prey and predator. I like both squirrels and hawks. And even though I understand the need for both of their roles within the cycle of nature, I’m a wimp when it comes to witnessing the act in person.
I paused. I considered spending the rest of the morning working in my writing porch, which I hadn’t used since November. I probably could slip into it from the other side without disturbing the hawk, and I could turn on the space heater. I could get even better photos; I could be hawk-inspired for the rest of the day. And if it meant seeing something that I’d rather not see, at least I could write a firsthand narrative about whatever happened.
But it was not to be. The hawk lifted its shoulders, hopped off the branch, spread its wings, and soared away across the neighboring properties. (What a wingspan!) Some of those yards have active bird feeders in them. If the warning cries from the crow hadn’t reached that far – well, I guess this couldn’t be one of my concerns. I turned and went back into the house.
I was happy enough to have watched one of my favorite animals for a few minutes on an early spring morning. I had gotten another glimpse into that other being’s world, and to the life that goes on around us, whether we pay attention to it or not. And it was only because I had used our last postage stamp three days earlier, that was I given the chance to pop onto this scene. Thank you, Universe. And continued Good Hunting to you, Mr./Ms. Hawk. I hope you found a decent brunch somewhere.
by Sandy Stott
My related hawk-watching story also takes place in a pine tree, and it too involves squirrels. On this particular spring day, I was on my way home, passing by a large white pine, when the squalling of a crow drew my eyes up. The crow was atop the pine, but the action was taking place a third of the way down the tree: there, barely visible, were the tail feathers of a large bird, which was clearly at work deep inside some cavity in the tree.
Thirty seconds passed and then, amid backing up and flapping, a hawk worked its way out of the cavity; in its talons was a baby squirrel. Whoa, I thought; that’s deep hunting (I had never seen a hawk hunt inside a tree). Amid crow cries and a scolding from a parent squirrel perched nearby, the hawk flapped twice and rose up and away. I’d witnessed part of the long cycle of relationship between hawks and squirrels, and I turned to walk on.
A friend nudged me, and said, “Look at that!” The parent squirrel had just emerged from the tree cavity, and in her mouth was another baby squirrel. What to do? her posture seemed to ask. But clearly she already knew. Head first down the tree she came, carrying what must have been a third to half her body weight. Then, across the parking lot, up an ash tree and out along a limb parallel to the ground twenty feet above us. Where’s she headed? we wondered.
At the elbow of the branch, where its remainder pointed up to the sky (and light), the mother squirrel disappeared. We relocated for better view, and then we could see a small hole in that woody elbow. Just then the mother squirrel reappeared empty mouthed, reversed her route and brought back baby squirrel number 2 from the pine cavity.
Same route run again. And the same for baby squirrels 3 and 4. No looking over her shoulder for a reappearing hawk, though clearly that was expected; no flagging of effort over her two hundred-foot journeys. And no attention paid to the small crowd of humans who had by now gathered to watch this rescue. Mother squirrel knew her priorities; she knew her hawks.
And, as Henry Thoreau knew so well, we often arrive as Nature’s witnesses when we pay attention, even during our shortest walks.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Why not keep pace with the day…and the migration of birds? … The wild goose is more a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Susquehanna, and plumes himself for the night in a Louisiana bayou.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, March 21, 1840
The Austrian Alps may be alive with the sound of music., but today in the farmlands and suburbia of southeastern Pennsylvania, the skies are alive with the calls of waterfowl. It’s “Goose music,” as Midwestern nature writer Aldo Leopold once called it. The Canada geese and the white tundra swans fly (and chatter) over us in Vs, in straight lines, and in disorganized and dynamic swiggles. They use the mile-wide gray ribbon of the Susquehanna River as their North Star. Our leftover cornfields and fine-trimmed farm ponds make good touchdowns and rest stops. Then, after a time, the birds take off again, in a whirl of whipping wings and whoops and hollers.
The geese could probably stop anywhere. The tundra swans, however, are heading for the shorelines of Hudson Bay and Canada’s Nunavut territory. They’ve still got a long way to go before reaching their summer home.
Our friend Henry Thoreau used exaggeration for effect when he claimed that a Canada goose could cross the north-to-south width of our country in just one day. (And why he had the bird flying south in a journal entry written in March is a mystery.) One online source I found said that Canada geese travel north at about the same rate as the season advances. 34° Fahrenheit is the key temperature they use to move. No wonder we’ve seen and heard many migrants recently. Our recent daytime temperatures have averaged around this mark or higher.
Whenever I hear the distant honks and whoops, I have to go outside and look up. I need to catch sight of the birds, hurrying on their way to wherever. I want to follow them someday, I think. I could just get in the car and keep an eye out and drive as they fly. The birds tend to take overland routes and to go “cross lots,” as Henry used to say, where no roads lead. Following them could be tough. And if they stopped to rest with other flocks, how would I recognize which batch was “mine” upon take off? I would have that pesky they-all-look-alike-to-me problem, at least at first. Darn.
For now, I guess I’ll have to watch the geese and travel with them vicariously. I’ll imagine the sights they’ll see along their journeys, both from the air and then on land. I’ll admire their instinct and tenacity.
When I return to the writings of Aldo Leopold, I find that he was also fascinated by seeing these guys in spring. And he imagined their later lives, too.
“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. … By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds of the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between. And in this annual barter of food for flight, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.” ~ Aldo Leopold, “March,” in “A Sand County Almanac”
As noted in a prior posting, we’ve been on the road lately, and the miles of wheeling south have made me think about, well, roads. Always, as we drive, I am aware of bisecting some landscape, of riding right through it at a speed that outpaces perception. Some of that thinking crystallized this morning when I read a posting – What Have Roads Wrought – on the New Yorker’s website.
As often happens when I read studies of ecological observation and effect, I thought of Henry Thoreau and the roads – both highway and railway – that passed by and, at times, animated his stay at Walden Pond. The pond’s east end is skirted by Route 126, and, famously, its west end has 1844’s Fitchburg Line as a tangent.
In the “Sounds” chapter, one of my favorite sections of Walden, Thoreau considers the complicated realities and possibilities of the train: it is both fearsome and expansive: “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside (Let that be the name of your engine)…I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles by me…I feel more like a citizen of the world [at the sight of the passing freight from around that world.]” The railroad is tireless and relentless and not subject to Nature, but it carries with it a broader sense of the world.
So too these other roads, the highways on which we drive.
Michelle Nijhuis’s New Yorker post – http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/roads-habitat-fragmentation?intcid=mod-latest – summarizes decades of some of the Manaus [Brazil] project’s research on habitat fragmentation brought on by our development of roads on which we drive our own “iron horses.” Chief among its findings are precipitous declines in species – flora and fauna – that arrive with roads; that seems especially true along the edges that line our roads. And, of course, the more roads we build the more edges we create.
What caught my eye (and returned me to Henry Thoreau) was the following statement from professor Nick Haddad of North Carolina State University:
The study also demonstrates, using a high-resolution map of global tree cover, that more than seventy per cent of the world’s forest now lies within one kilometer of such a [roadside] edge. “There are really only two big patches of intact forest left on Earth—the Amazon and the Congo—and they shine out like eyes from the center of the map,” Haddad said.
Two thoughts floated up from memory. The first took me back to Estabrook Woods, in my mind Thoreau’s north pole of Concord. In the early 1960s Concord businessman Tom Flint was flying back into Boston and doing what we all do when given a window seat – he was watching the strings and blobs of lights that show where we live. He noticed a large dark patch. “Where’s that undeveloped forest/land?” he wondered to himself. Flint discovered that it was Estabrook Woods, which turned out to be the largest contiguous patch of undeveloped land within the Rte 495 belt. Flint’s discovery launched a 30-year effort to keep Estabrook Woods intact, which, despite a Middlesex School intrusion for athletic fields, it mostly is today.
In Estabrook’s deepness, back from the roads that ring it, a walker can find goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, and Thoreau’s favorite bird, the wood thrush, all species that require uninterrupted forest.
The other thought is a common “game” for wilderness walkers – how far from a road are we? Or, put differently, what’s the most remote spot we can walk to (remote being defined as farthest from a road). It is – surprisingly or unsurprisingly – hard to get many miles away. In the lower 48 states, for example, the point of greatest remove from a road was tracked by Backpacker writer Mark Jenkins in 2008: “Astonishingly, in the entire continental U.S., coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, there is only one place left where you can get more than 20 miles from a road: in the greater Yellowstone region.” (See more at: http://www.backpacker.com/trips/wyoming/yellowstone-national-park/destination-nowhere/2/#bp=0/img1)
In “Sounds” the train goes by, and throughout the night Thoreau rides his most expansive vehicle, that of his imagination. The chapter ends decisively with an image of unfragmented Nature: “Instead of no path to the front yard gate in the Great Snow, – no gate,-no front yard,- and no path to the civilized world.”
Back on the asphalt paths, I’m thinking again of Nijhuis’s post and this note: “Roads scare the hell out of ecologists,” William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University, in Australia, said. “You can’t be in my line of business and not be struck by their transformative power.”
I didn’t go looking for this entry. Yes, I decamped from our snow-caked north and drove south for some family visiting. And yes, as happens to many who drive south at this time of year, I had a time-lapse experience of spring – it arrived as we wheeled down from the Cumberland Plateau into the lower lands of North Carolina, where the grass showed a first green and the maples burned with the gaudy red haze of their flowers at distance. But all of that, even in its visual richness, is predictable. That’s why so many northern cars are loose on southern roads at this time of year.
What brought me to keyboard was an evening reading from early March, 1855 in Thoreau’s journal (a worthy book to bear into spring, yes?). On consecutive days – March 8th and 9th – Henry Thoreau also visited the north and then the south as part of a series of expansive March walks. “To the Carlisle Road,” he writes at the head of the 8th’s entry, which is another way of saying to Estabrook (or Easterbrook) Woods, which lie due north of town.
And then on the 9th, he’s at a spring favorite, the Andromeda Ponds – ah yes, there they are on the USGS quadrangle close by Walden, south of town.
Perhaps it is my own pining for spring as this remarkable winter eases (slowly), but Thoreau’s early March of ’55 reads poignant to me. Every day he goes out, and on most days he mentions that he hopes for a bluebird.
And it is appropriate, I think, that each day begins with Thoreau’s boat: “This morning I got my boat out of the cellar and turned it up in the yard to let the seams open before I calk it. The blue river, now almost completely open…admonishes me to be swift.” 3/8/55
Then, on the 9th, he writes, “painted the bottom of my boat.”
It is clear that Henry Thoreau is ready for some voyaging, and his walks to the north and then south seem to fit this yearning, as he notes also that “I walk these days along the brooks, looking for tortoises and trout, etc.”
Perhaps part of my impression stems also from a descriptive paragraph on pines and their amber drops of pitch. On the 9th Thoreau is also once again on the far side of Fair Haven hill, stepping over and balancing on newly felled “great white pine masts.” The cutters have been at it again, laying bare more Concord landscape, and it is typical of Thoreau that he doesn’t avert his gaze. Instead, he looks closely, and, amid devastation, he finds beauty. And question.
“I was struck, in favorable lights, with the jewel-like brilliancy of the sawed end thickly bedewed with crystal drops of turpentine, thickly as a shield, as if dryads (?), oreads (?), pine-wood nymphs had seasonably wept there the fall of the tree. The perfect sincerity of these terebinthine drops, each one reflecting the world…is incredible when you remember how firm their consistency. And this is that pitch which you cannot touch without being defiled?”
Boats, beauty amid loss, the call of water – the world opens out into spring, and we voyage out to it.
Guest Post by Kayann Short
“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.” –Thoreau, Walden
On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the palm-treed hills surrounding us in our small valley. Early the next morning, however, I got my chance when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I experienced the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.
Recently I heard a story on National Public Radio about two women who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall. The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet their roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. According to the report, some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.
These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. These women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future that was once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”
In the early 1970s, Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range was home to a small commune of hippies. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby. Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.
We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. But almost from the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg-layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt Ajax to replenish their breeding stock.
I love my hens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, as Thoreau knew and wrote, we need roosters to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.
Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster – the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist – but more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lesses.
We roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message forms and surely it rises above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, we establish that “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the day, the future and the world we’ll leave behind, we need to be like roosters and wake each other up.
Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press). She farms, writes, and teaches at Stonebridge Farm, the first CSA in Boulder County, Colorado.
By Corinne H. Smith
“I noticed a week or two ago that one of my white pines, some six feet high with a thick top, was bent under a great burden of very moist snow, almost to the point of breaking, so that an ounce more of weight would surely have broken it. As I was confined to the house by sickness, and the tree had already been four or five days in that position, I despaired of its ever recovering itself; but, greatly to my surprise, when, a few days after, the snow had melted off, I saw the tree almost perfectly upright again. It is evident that trees will bear to be bent by this cause and at this season much more than by the hand of man. Probably the less harm is done in the first place by the weight being so gradually applied, and perhaps the tree is better able to bear it at this season of the year.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 3, 1861
I thought of Thoreau’s description of pine resilience when nine inches of wet snow fell on our region last week. All of our trees were quickly and thickly outlined in white. But in instances like this one, our backyard white pine is always the tree most affected. Normally its lowest branch reaches straight outward or lifts itself slightly skyward, from four feet up. After the storm, its farthest-most needles touched the ground.
With the forecast of warmer temperatures, I knew the snowy covering wouldn’t last long. I didn’t despair of the white pine’s fate, as Thoreau did. Sure enough, within 48 hours, the surface snow had melted and slid off every branch. The tree was back to normal, at least in outward appearance.
Seeing this simple process: Is it any wonder that Henry Thoreau used examples from nature as metaphors for human behavior? In challenging times, can’t we exhibit as much resilience as a pine tree once covered in snow?
Now, of course, I’ve seen myriad trees damaged by powerful hurricanes and ice storms. I’m sure many in New England were hurt badly with the weight of the snows of this season. And yes, under extreme circumstances, both trees and people will break.
But isn’t it more likely that both will bend and bounce back? I think so. I think we can learn something of ourselves from the pines. Some folks are fond of saying, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” The flexibility of the pines illustrates this principle. Just let that snow slide away in its time, and then spring back.
Or forward. Ah, this leads us to another metaphor … and just in time!
The telltale chips litter the snow; I look, then reach, up. The hole in the white pine swallows my finger; it bores all the way into the heartwood. A thumbnail gouge appears just above – the next boring, perhaps to be pursued when I leave. How powerful must a bird be to dig so in live wood? Later, I go in search of testimony that will detail this scatter of wood chips at the feet of this newly-opened tree.
The always-useful Cornell University Lab of Ornithology website http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/pileated_woodpecker/lifehistory offers satisfying summary of this large, colorful bird, who is also my neighbor. Masters of broad territory, every so often one or two pileated woodpeckers visit the small grove of white and pitch pines behind our house, though they don’t drill much into them. Instead, they laugh and leave. Our woodpeckers need deeper woods (more cover, I suspect) for their diggings. But not far off, on the trail to the Town Commons, it’s clear that they put in their hours uncovering the tunnels of carpenter ants, their favored food. What a long (and terrifying) knocking at the door the ants must hear when the pileated woodpecker comes calling.
All forests (and people?) need a totem bird. For me, the pileated woodpecker answers that need. Unlike our talky crows, who seem always and everywhere, our pileated appears at odd hours, though he or she tends toward morning. Weeks will pass without a visit, however; then, in space of a few days, I’ll hear his or her distinctive voice, a stuttering laugh of sorts, or see a flash of largeness with its thrill of bright red. The day looks up.
The Cornell website also points out that “the birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae (which can be more than an inch long) or termites lying deep in the wood.” Who, aside from figuratively, has a barbed tongue, I think, as I add a little more wonder to my watching.
A little later on this day, and half-mile or so deeper into the woods, we see quick movement in my upper left periphery; we stop crunching along the snow and wait. Twenty seconds later, this large woodpecker flashes away, deeper into the trees. We see the dark wings and a glimpse of red. If we were to wait for some minutes, we might hear our bird resume knocking on a tree’s door. It is a hungry season. But we have our own appointments, our own knockings ahead, and we walk on deeper into our own days.