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”
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.
“When he has obtained those things that are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” “Economy,” Walden
Scene from a few days ago: The short-long month dwindles to a day, even as the morning temperature (ten below zero) offers reminder of its power. I’ve just returned from some days in the White Mountains, where, true to their name, winter’s grip endures. Each day, I climbed out of night’s valley toward the ridge-tops, feeling the cold sharpen as I got higher, and heeding its insistent reminder that winter climbing is all about carefully managing temperature, a lesson in essential heat that Thoreau considers at the outset of Walden.
Walking up on snowshoes also gives you ample time to think- it is the slowest form of walking I know – and I spent some of that time considering my little island of heat on the way up. The counterintuitive trick in deep cold is to avoid overheating and its bath of sweat, which, if generated, tends quickly toward ice when you stop and cool. As all winter walkers know, this focus leads to a parsing of layers of clothing that is different for each walker. I spent considerable steps debating 3 versus 4 layers, adding in consideration of a tucked versus an untucked underlayer.
Then, there was our adaptability to cold to figure – in short the longer your exposure to cold, the more you acclimate to it. Even my three days of climbing pointed this out. By day three, I was down a layer, even as the temperature stayed stubbornly near zero. And, as further example, I recalled a few years ago being out on Zealand Mountain on a zero-degree day, when the caretaker for the nearby hut passed us wearing only shorts and a halter top as she cruised up the trail. Yes, she did admit to “layering up” once she reached the open ledges near 4000 feet, but her winter of living in an unheated hut had given her impressive resistance to cold.
Finally, there was the feeding of my “firebox,” a practice nearly identical to that of keeping a wood stove going throughout the day. (Thoreau notes this analogy as well.) I learned stoves during a winter in a wood-heated cabin when I was in my early 20s. By March, I could mix woods of varying density and dryness to get the consistent heat of a slow burn day and night. And, having become inured to the cold, I kept the cabin at around 50 degrees. So too with the burn of the body’s fuel during winter walking – mixed feedings, often while still walking, keep you warmer. And here is happiness: enduring cold asks for calories of fat. You like cream cheese or butter? Bring (or layer) it on. It’s not unusual for someone out in deep cold to burn 5000 calories in a day. Falling short of that intake can bring on insistent chill.
I know too Henry Thoreau set out on snowshoes when winter was deep – I saw his snowshoes at last year’s exhibit of Thoreauvia at the Concord Museum – and surely he left a record of sensitivity to temperature – both his and that of the Walden world. Thoreau understood that we are truly thermal beings; sometimes it takes winter drive home our dependence.
Postscript: for 24 hours after returning from days outdoors in the cold mountains, I got thermal reminder: indoors, even with central heating set low, I burned with heat. Then, the fat worked through my firebox, and I returned to the temperate feedings and feelings of the lowlands.
“We go listening for bluebirds, but only hear crows and chickadees.” Journal, 3/1/55
The light suggests it. It peers in-house before 6:00 a.m., and even amid the ongoing cold, it has crusted the snowbanks that angle toward the south. And also even as more snow filters in, the drifts have begun to shrink. The growing light is sublime. Also literally, as the shrinkage of snow comes of sublimation.
Like Henry Thoreau, I think there must be bluebirds about. And I know where to look. Back in January, when our winter looked to be a humdrum sort of thin cover and open fields, I noticed that an old relic apple tree on one of my walking routes flashed often with chips of blue color. A whole crew of bluebirds – what is the word for a gathering of bluebirds? An azure of birds? A sky of them? – favored this dense, spiky tree. Clearly, they were intent on weathering and wintering here.
And a quick trip to my bird book showed a sliver of purple riding the nearby coast, sign of possible year-round range, even as the rest of northern New England is usually summer range only.
What about now, I wondered. Were the bluebirds, after this month of snowy onslaught, still here? Or had they, like many of us, been “innived?”
I went to look, and there along the border of snowfield and hard by an old track that promises sometime a walk into the woods, they were. Even more blue against the always white of the day. Leave aside the sobering thought that these bluebirds may winter here now because warming is on the rise. Today they are blue relief against the deep white.
I like the little riot of chickadees always at the birdfeeder, and surely the crows are our most talkative neighbor. But the bluebird’s a sign I’m happy to go walking and listening for. Welcome to March.
By Corinne H. Smith
Unless you’re shelving classics in alphabetical order by surname, the names of American authors Henry Thoreau and Mark Twain don’t usually surface at the same time. The two men never met, although their lives overlapped by 27 years. Twain began his writing career just as Thoreau was ending his. By then, they were based on opposite sides of the country. Their writing styles and choices of topics differed widely, of course. But both wrote travel narratives. And both were known for their keen powers of observing the activities of nature and man. Overall, Henry focused more on the first; and Mark, more on the second. Both had unique senses of humor, too.
One issue they may have agreed on was the costs they both incurred by choosing a certain way of earning money. They could have debated their results. Is it possible to be TOO familiar with Nature? Do we lose something irreplaceable when we gain too much technical knowledge of the natural world? Consider these two passages.
In his journal entry for January 1, 1858, Thoreau mourns the loss of finding wildness after conducting a lot of surveying:
“I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind’s eye – as, indeed, on paper – as so many men’s wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at any given moment passing from such a one’s wood-lot to another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.”
Compare these thoughts to those in Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in Chapter IX, called “Continued Perplexities.” He describes losing the ability to see beauty after learning to navigate a steamboat across the muddy Mississippi:
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!”
Twain recalls – to a time when he was known as Sam Clemens – how he once had been captivated by sunsets or by moonlight reflected in the water. He could relish the sights of ripples, sunken logs, and other imperfections that made the river view more interesting. These were the same idiosyncrasies that could have consequences if you happened to be steering a paddlewheel craft through the water. Now all he could see were potential navigational obstacles.
“But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. … No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”
These are sad words to read. Especially since both men were writing about their home territories and about places they loved. Walden Woods. The Mississippi River. I hope they both overcame these losses, and that these were only temporary setbacks. Or maybe the stresses were more complex. Maybe the men also inwardly bristled at the situations that forced them to be responsible to others for that keen but necessary focus on science and mechanics. Henry reported to the landowners. Young Sam Clemens’s duties were to a steamboat company and to an ever-changing packet of passengers. Neither had much time for sheer appreciation of the landscape.
And yet, I keep Thoreau and Twain in mind as I continue to read and learn more about plants and animals and habitats and such. If I’m in the forest, and I come upon a leaf that I recognize, will I be apt to say, “That’s a white oak,” and never look up at the terrific silhouette of the tree it came from? I wonder: If we learn “enough” about the natural world, do we risk never having another chance to witness its wildness or beauty? Will the facts always get in the way?
I can’t be the only one who worries about this dilemma. Surely scientists and park rangers must wrestle with it, too. Do you?
More fun with shovel on the roof today, and, yes, the arctic has reannounced itself (13 below this morning). I pitched my pounds of snow out into the air, and they fell with the thud of stone. But up there, on its slight southwestern pitch, I also got a face full of light, and in the little coves of my scarf, I could feel that light’s heat gathering. I leaned on my shovel, closed my eyes, and felt Spring coming on.
It is common announcement, but it feels like miracle as well, this tiny promise. And, as often happens when I’m outside, Henry Thoreau’s nosings about came to mind. In particular, I thought about his musings on the way seeds move with the wind and over the snow during the winter. Below me, the snow was littered with twigs and seeds from a recent gale, other tiny promises that, when linked with sun and water, would become the next season of growth.
In mid-February of 1856, Thoreau was, as usual, out walking and seeing what he could see:
I was struck today by the size and continuousness of the natural willow hedge on the east side of the railroad causeway, at the foot of the embankment, next to the fence. Some twelve years ago, when that causeway was built through the meadows, there were no willows there or near there, but now just at the foot of the sandbank, where it meets the meadow, and on the line of the fence, quite a dense willow hedge has planted itself. I used to think that the seeds were brought with the sand from the Deep Cut in the woods, but there is no golden willow there; but now I think that the seeds have been blown hither from a distance and lodged against the foot of the bank, just as the snow drift accumulates there…
…Thus they take advantage of even the railroad, which elsewhere disturbs and invades their domains. May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow! How tenacious of life! How withy! How soon it gets over its hurts! Journal 2/14/56
Blown this way and that by a winter of renown, I felt as if I had come to rest at the base of this bank of light; I felt its warmth. It seeds me for spring.
It’s not hard to decipher where this title came from. Like our touchstone, Henry Thoreau, I have been outside, and now, from my morning chair by two large windows, I can see the sheets, flurries and wind-worries of leftover storm, which follows earlier storm and, I suppose, anticipates the next. We are in the thrall of snow. And, while we missed the two feet predicted 48 hours ago, this winter’s full measure has been enough to send me “up-roof,” as my neighbors say, to see about easing the load on our sun-state-design, shallow-pitched roof.
Up there, I’ve found a stratigraphy of this remarkable geology of snow, in which I read its narrative, even as I remove it. Each storm has its story, which is, in turn pressed down and preserved by the next. This morning, I put in about an hour of shoveling, flinging an estimated 3000 pounds of snow over the edge, where it grew into piles that should remind into May. When I climbed down and went to move the flank of one of those piles, I encountered a familiar metamorphosis. The soft snow I had thrown easily from the roof had set like the whitest concrete; when I did chop some of it free, it came off in dense chunks. The shift from angel snow to construction-grade hardpack had taken less than an hour.
Which got me thinking about transformations. Which got me thinking about avalanches.
A decade or so ago, I was sent a book for review (review appended at the end of this post). I read Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck avidly and with increasing admiration. Fredstone and her husband Doug Fesler (composers of most interesting northern lives) are avalanche experts from Alaska, and her 2005 book distilled their experience and a series of harrowing narratives into a very readable chronicle of moving snow. The book has since become a must-read for many avalanche courses.
What I recalled from the book was the wild variety of snows on offer, and the way it emphasized moving snow’s grip when it comes to rest. What seems a wonderland of sliding can become, rapidly, a hard, gripping reality.
As I’ve read through Thoreau’s 1855 and 1856 winters, while this Winter of ’15 mesmerizes, I’ve noted down its snows. And now in its deepness, I climb to my roof and read its layerings. It occurs to me that I am in the company of Proteus, the shapeshifter; day after day, as I wrestle with him, he keeps changing.
A Review of Snowstruck.
Snowstruck’s chapter three opens with a photo of a long chain of people ascending Alaska’s wintery Chilkoot Pass. Soon the reader learns that everyone in the photo is doing “the Chilkoot Lockstep,” an uphill shuffle to the top of the pass and a chance at joining the 1898 gold rush into Alaska’s Klondike. But a reader who knows snow might be pardoned for wondering what all those people were doing tramping together across a slope that looks distinctly like avalanche terrain. “Seeking fortune,” would be the ready answer, but of course those who seek gold often find hard lessons rather than wealth, and most of these Klondike stampeders found hardship in abundance. Later in the chapter, woe visits in the form of one of history’s deadliest avalanches, wiping out tens of stampeders.
The story of these Klondike aspirants is uncovered by one of Snowstruck’s central characters, snow and avalanche guru Doug Fesler, who also happens to be the author’s husband (their romance is a subplot of this larger love affair with snow). Fesler is digging back through old newspapers to learn more of avalanche history in Alaska (their home state). It is a measure of his and the book’s focus on avalanches that he will closet himself in small, dark rooms to read microfilms about snow sliding a hundred years ago. That he is rediscovering an intimacy of knowledge about the natural world that Alaska’s aboriginal people had casts Fesler (and the author) as valuable anachronisms, albeit ones who use modern analytic tools. They are the ones who remind us in lucid detail of what is lost when we march in lockstep pursuit of wealth and out of right relationship with nature – we might as well be crossing a perilous slope poised to carry us all away.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Mother remembers the Cold Friday very well. She lived in the house where I was born. The people in the kitchen – Jack Garrison, Esther, and a Hardy girl – drew up close to the fire, but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them, close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 11, 1857
If you have visited Thoreau Farm, you can no doubt picture this scene. An assortment of family members and a few servants were huddled beside the large fireplace in our first-floor parlor. They had abandoned working in the kitchen in the salt-box shed attached to the back of the house. Outside the wind whipped across their fields. None of them knew how long they would have to stay here. And if they had to keep building “great fires,” perhaps we should feel fortunate today that they didn’t accidentally burn down the whole house back then.
Every region has its dramatic weather stories. For winter records, New England has the Blizzard of 1978, the Great Snows of 1717, and the Cold Friday of January 19, 1810. (Perhaps the Winter of 2014-2015 will get a fancy name and will be added to the list.)
Thursday, January 18th, 1810 had been an unseasonably warm day. Some spots reported temperatures as high as the 50s and low 60s. But by sunset a line of snow squalls moved into western Massachusetts “with the power and fury of a tornado,” according to one source. “Desolation marked its course.”
Temperatures plummeted as the storm moved from west to east. By midnight, many thermometers were down to zero. On Friday, they dropped to -14, even -20. And those readings didn’t take what we call now wind chill into consideration. Wind velocities weren’t reported then, but they must have been catastrophic. The front brought a sustained “high wind, cold and piercing in the extreme, and of such force as to prostrate many trees and buildings.” Tree trunks were sheared off at various heights. The meeting house in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, was just one of the buildings that lost its roof. The wind and cold abated a bit by Monday, but the rest of January remained frigid.
Cold Friday was tragic enough that it was written about in town histories. In Woburn, Massachusetts, Joseph and Benjamin Brooks had gone to a nearby woodlot to chop wood that Thursday. On Saturday, they were found frozen to death. In Sanbornton, New Hampshire, Jeremiah Ellsworth’s house was torn apart by the wind. He pushed his way against the gale to a neighbor’s house for help, then returned to his own to rescue his wife and three children. The wind tore the children’s clothes right off their bodies. In spite of their best efforts, Jeremiah and his wife lost all three.
While other New Englanders dealt with dire losses of property and lives, the Dunbars and Minots and their friends stayed safe in this two-and-a-half story frame house we now call Thoreau Farm, built in 1730. According to entries in Henry Thoreau’s journal, members of his mother’s generation brought up memories of Cold Friday whenever the winter was particularly cold or snowy. Cynthia Dunbar had been 22 years old back then: still two years away from becoming Mrs. John Thoreau, and seven years away from giving birth to little David Henry.
As we in the Northeast hunker down to experience our own version of cold Friday, perhaps we can take inspiration from Cynthia and the people of Concord in 1810. They made it through the cold, and we can, too. Let’s hope ours isn’t one for the record books.
I’ve just come in from hoisting more snow off the driveway and onto the banks along it. I use the word “hoisting,” because the usual dig-and-fling of shoveling won’t work anymore. Instead I’m now tossing snow back at the sky, which seems to underline the futility of the work.
Whenever Henry Thoreau wants to evoke wallowing snows and winter awe, he turns back to the Great Snow[s] of 1717. Then, in the very month of February, huge, wind-driven snows laid down Buffalonian depths that buried both houses and pastured animals. In “Winter Visitors,” he writes of “that early settler’s family in the town of Sutton, in this state”:
…whose cottage was completely covered by the great snow of 1717 when he was absent, and an Indian found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift, and so relieved the family.
And a little earlier, at the end of “Housewarming,” he returns from being “exposed to the rudest blasts” to this thought:
It would be easy to cut their [humanity’s] threads anytime with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows, but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe.
Both moments in Walden point to the narrow span that we call “normal” and what waits outside it; they make his point amply. But for drifts of detail equal to the snows they describe, we go to his journal, where Thoreau, in turn, records an eyewitness account from Cotton Mather in a December letter from 1717. The letter begins with understatement:
On the twentieth of last February there came on a snow, which being added unto what had covered the ground a few days before, made a thicker mantle for our mother than what was usual.
Okay, we think, big storm atop prior snowfall; we’ve seen the like. But like our current winter with its more than 5 feet of snow for Boston in the past 17 days (ah, the recurring 17), there was more to come:
On the 24th day of the month comes Pelion upon Ossa [see mountainous imagery]: Another snow came on which almost buried the memory of the former, with a storm so famous that Heaven laid an interdict on the religious assemblies throughout the country…The Indians near an hundred years old affirm that their fathers never told them of anything that equalled it.
There follows vivid description of all sorts of snow-burials – cattle entombed, sheep too:
For no less than eight and twenty days after the storm, the people pulling out the ruins of above an hundred sheep out of a snow bank, which lay sixteen foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive…A man had a couple of young hogs, which he gave over for dead, but on the 27th day after their burial, they made their way out of a snow bank, at the bottom of which they had found a little tansy to feed upon.
So, given this ’17 comparison, not so deep for us…yet. When last I checked, we still have “a little tansy to feed upon.” Still, there’s more winter to come.
Added note for those looking for winter words: Mather uses the word “innived” for those animals buried in snow. Just the word for our winter, I think – may your days be enlivened for being innived.
Whenever and wherever I walk I keep an eye out for feathers, though I will say that during blueberry time, I see only those of the blue jay; then, all awareness is aimed at discovery of blue. Many of our birds don’t wear gaudy coats, and so whatever they shed as they fly or flurry is some shade of brown or gray. And so, not easily seen. Until you begin seeing them; then, they turn out to be everywhere. Or at least in many places.
In midstate New Hampshire, where we go to find mountains, we keep a glass of found feathers. Over the years, visitors have also added to this clutch, until the glass has become a sort of aviary, or record of one. But none of us has Sibley-like ability to identify all the former owners of these feathers. Yes, there are the unmistakable – we think – yellow and brown of the cedar waxwing, the ubiquitous jay, and, of course, the flashy cardinal. And the wild turkey, which at times dominates a nearby upper pasture in big flocks, scatters its distinctive feathers liberally, though watching a turkey struggle to be airborne, one would think it had no feathers to spare. At one time, I wanted to gather a small book, a book of feathers, that would help walkers identify the birds who left these feathers on the ground. An artist friend would draw each feather, and we would figure out to which bird it should be reattached, offering a short paragraph and picture of the bird. I’ve settled for our glass record of flight instead.
But many of the solitaries in the glass, (some large flight feathers from hawks or owls I like to think), draw attention not for their former owners’ (imagined) names, but instead for the winter flower they form together. There, curving up and out from their wine glass, is reminder, flower of flight, in the midst of this cold season when we often feel grounded. And in all seasons, these feathers are record of attention as we walk, little findings that draw us deeper into both walk and world. Another sort of flight.
“In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or character of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” Journal, 2/5/55
During some winters, a sub-zero temperature is enough to draw me out – the snow that whines underfoot (even it offers cold complaint); the webbed nose hairs; the downright rarity of it all. Ah, then there’s our current winter, where the high temperature during a recent snow was 2 degrees. And last night, when February’s full moon, the SnowMoon, shone like a huge lamp in the white pines, it was 10 below, when I went out to try for a photograph of its deep blue shadows on our feet of snow.
Our SnowMoon follows early January’s Wolf Moon, which arrived when our ground was nearly bare (remember that?) and the winter felt decidedly unwolfy, a sort of Midatlantic compromise. No longer, of course; we seem into a winter that summons the mythic, and so the wolves are back, their ways lit by this moon in the pines. At least imagination suggested this as I squeaked over the snow and pointed my lens at the tree-framed SnowMoon.
My little camera, unsophisticatedly automatic, like much decision-making technology, caught little more than what looks like a wan light in a pitchy night, though it did amuse me by firing a weak flash of return light each time I pressed the button. All the blue shadows and pathways of pale light go missing in each frame.
Which left only the walk in the cold-crazed air.
Which is, I suppose, as it should be. All the better for listening and wondering:
“My, what a big moon you have.”
“All the better to summon the next snow.”
“And that faint, distant moaning sound?”
“It could be the wind. Or it could be the dogs of night, my dear. The very wolves.”
Ah, company of what once was for a night’s walk under the SnowMoon.
A quiet post for January’s end, in honor, perhaps, of our next and new 6 inches of snow.
As I note from time to time, and as I walk and shovel through this winter, I am also reading through others – 18s 55 and 56 to be precise – in Thoreau’s journal, and in deep January (a thick winter then, as well), I have come upon this:
A journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said. I am occasionally reminded of a statement which I have made in conversation and immediately forgotten, which would read much better than what I put in my journal. It [the statement] is a ripe, dry fruit of long-past experience which falls from me easily, without giving pain or pleasure. The charm of the journal must consist in a certain greenness, though freshness, and not in maturity. Here I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become. 1/24/56
This winter journal is rife with just such greenness and aspiration. Even as it notes a cold that empties the landscape, its pages fan out before the reader, considering the Rig Veda, crow tracks and diet, the citizenship of elms, and the raised effect of walking atop snow:
The snow is so deep along the sides of the river that I can now look into nests which I could hardly reach in the summer. I can hardly believe them the same…Thus we go about, raised, generally speaking, more than a foot above the summer level. So much higher do we carry our heads in the winter. 1/24/56
I especially like Thoreau’s sense of being uplifted, “so much higher,” in deep winter. So different from the trudging slump so many exhibit when the snows add up, it is a sort of “greenness” in winter.
A poem to which I return from time to time is Billy Collins’ Marginalia. Collins writes about margin-notes he’s found over a reading lifetime; one favorite explains a smudge by saying, “Pardon the egg-salad stains, but I’m in love.”
It’s not a book, but the sea’s edge also holds comment, as does the edge of day.
At day’s end I go down to the sea for late January’s added minute or two of light. On this day, the low sun is nested in a slate and pastel backdrop, and the news of the recent coldsnap drifts by as a slurry of near-ice. Tomorrow, the bay will be transformed; it will carry a cloak of ice that will rise and fall with the 9-foot tide. And soon miniature bergs will litter the shoreline, tossed and thrust up by collision and wind; we will look arctic along our edge.
As I watch it the sun also looks for a moment like a smudge, a fingerprint on the sky’s margin. Yes, I love the little added light as night comes on.
I’m in my morning sun-chair, and today, approximately a month after solstice, the sun’s strong enough to wrinkle my brow as it bears in from the southeast. Every so often it slides behind a thin pine; then, ticks later, it’s back, and, faintly, it warms. “It will be long coming,” seems the promise of more light and warmth given, “but it will be.”
It occurs to me that I have a new way of measuring time’s passage. I have a woodsclock. That “clock” is the small stand of white and pitch pines outside my southeast window. As the sun rises along its shallow, winter arc, it slides behind this irregular grouping of trees; their shadows shift bluely over the snow. Today, they began their passage pointing in my direction, fingers of shadow amid shafts of light. Then, as the sun worked across the southern sky, they shifted toward parallel. Finally, now, as late morning comes on, the shadow-digits have begun to point away from me before disappearing entirely as larger trees block the sun’s light.
Time, my woodsclock says, to rise and shift the focus of my day.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Mr. Stewart tells me that he has found a gray squirrel’s nest up the Assabet, in a maple tree. I resolve that I too will find it. I do not know within less than a quarter of a mile where to look, nor whether it is in a hollow tree, or in a nest of leaves. I examine the shore first and find where he landed. I then examine the maples in that neighborhood to see what one has been climbed. I soon find one the bark of which has been lately rubbed by the boots of a climber, and, looking up, see a nest. It was a large nest made of maple twigs, with a centre of leaves, lined with fiber, about twenty feet from the ground, against the leading stem of a large red maple. … There was quite a depth of loose sticks, maple twigs, piled on the top of the nest. No wonder that they become skillful climbers who are born high above the ground and begin their lives in a tree, having first of all to descend to reach the earth. They are cradled in a tree-top, in but a loose basket, in helpless infancy, and there slumber when their mother is away. No wonder that they are never made dizzy by high climbing, that were born in the top of a tree, and learn to cling fast to the tree before their eyes are open.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 22, 1860
Gosh, Henry. I guess early spring would be a decent time to search for nests, especially if you hope to find brand-new offspring. But I prefer mid-winter, when the nests are empty. In fact, I think this is one of the joys of the season. Right before our eyes, Nature has unveiled evidence of random spring and summer residences. Months ago everything was hidden by leaves and shrubbery. Now the curtain has been lifted and we can see back stage. The sight reminds me of a better known Thoreau quote: “The Universe is wider than our views of it.”
These days, I delight in walking and driving around the countryside. I scrutinize each lacy silhouette against the white winter sky, looking for a clump or knot. The first one I noticed was the robin’s nest in our front yard. It lay next to the utility lines, a few branches away from the place where they had built one the previous year. They may have even taken some of the material from the old nest to make the new. But how did it ever stay in place, wedged between only a few young cross shoots? Their engineering skills amaze me.
This cup of interwoven twigs and grasses was vital when it once held a parent bird, eggs, and then nestlings. But it was only necessary for raising the kids. When everyone could fly, they left. Now that architectural marvels like this are open to the wind and to all kinds of precipitation, they’re beginning to fall apart. Eventually they’ll just disappear into the fabric of our local habitat. This is Life. This is Nature.
I spied a tiny nest in my neighbor’s bushy roadside border. Who had lived in it? I wondered. Many of us had walked within inches of it on our way to the grocery store up the block. No one saw it then. Sadly, I suspect that not many of the passers-by see it today, either.
A tall sugar maple down the street stretches itself high across our road. Now we can spot a small nest sitting on one of those overhanging limbs. Every one of us drove beneath a bird family every day without realizing it. What a wonderful sight it is now! But how did those guys ever hang on in a storm?
Then there was my major discovery while raking up leaves in the backyard. Pausing in my task to look up, I saw a large and leafy squirrel nest perched near the top of our white pine. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t photograph well, even though it is clear enough to the naked eye.) These critters sure are smart, building their condo right next to an oak tree that can supply them with an almost endless supply of acorns. Now I know why I’ve seen so many fuzzy gray bodies bounding across our back yard lately. We are co-boarders of this property.
Seeing these nests has led me to consider minimalism. These animals need only a few basic resources to survive. Compare their homes to our own, filled with clutter and crap. Do we really need so much stuff? Probably not.
I suppose we could learn a lot from the birds and the squirrels, and from the other feather- and fur-bearers we share this planet with. All is takes is the sight of an old nest in a tree to get me thinking.
“Skated to Baker Farm with a rapidity which astonished myself, before the wind, feeling the rise and fall – the water having settled in the suddenly cold night – which I had not time to see…a man feels like a new creature, a deer, perhaps, moving at this rate…I judged that in a quarter of an hour I was three and a half miles from home without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille.” Journal 1/14/1855
And that seems just the expansive note to counter winter’s deepness, where often we read and feed our way from afternoon’s light and evening’s dark. Today that deepness burrows in as cold of the nose-webbing, frost-feathery sort. At first light it was 10 below zero, and the rhododendron leaves were curled in tightly on themselves like so many little cigars; the birds were boisterous at the feeder: fill it again, they seemed to say. The snow looked confident in its new blue shadows.
By noon, however, a gray lid had slipped over the sky, and, as I streaked wax on my x-c skis, the light was flat. I would ski down a narrow woods road to the edge of a tidal marsh, and then run along its flank to the tundra of a local golf course, where I would loop back to my start-point. Cross-country skiing, like its cousin, skating, depends upon a mix of traction and slipperiness. On a good day the way the snow crystals impress themselves upon your skis’ waxed bottoms creates just enough bond to allow you to push off; then your ski glides forward over the glassy crystals. And then you press down your ski and kick off a next stride. And a next. When all is well with this subtle bond-and-glide between wax and snow, you fairly float along the surface, warmed by the effort and aware only of the cold by way of the wind you generate in passage.
So too the edged grab then glide of skating (which has, or course, become its own form of x-c skiing, though my skis are the classic sort).
There are, of course, other days, ones of slippery labor, when there’s no bond and you flounder in place. Or there’s so much bond that the snow clumps to your skis and you are reduced to lumpen-footed walking of the most awkward kind – imagine no toes on your six-foot feet.
But let’s live in today’s ease of flotation over snow, traverse this bit of winter borne up on a surface that must be as close as we ever get to walking across the tops of clouds.
“Without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille,” as Henry said.
Not long ago, as winter settled heavily over us, I read in our local paper of a distant snow-story that made me smile. The story featured an avalanche, some snowmobilers and a moose. Not much room for good result with those variables, but here was surprise.
On a Sunday, three men, Marty Mobley, Rob Uphus and Avery Vunichich, set off on a snowmobiling outing some 50 miles northeast of Anchorage Alaska. Enough new snow had fallen to make the men wary of the slopes that rose above. Avalanches, even small ones, move with a speed and power that can outrun snowmobiles (or skiers) easily. As they drove through a pass on their way out, the three men noted a slope marked with both ski and moose tracks.
An hour later, on the way back, they arrived at the same slope and found that it had avalanched. When they saw movement the three men hurried toward it; that movement resolved not as a skier, but as a nose sticking up (barely) from the snow. And that nose was a moose nose.
The three men retrieved their shovels and began to dig. Some minutes later they had uncovered enough of the moose to allow it to move. The moose stood; the men stood back. Then, the moose ambled off.
Imagine for a moment the moose packed in the snow. Avalanched snow sets quickly, firming up like cement; the moose was stored beneath it like an exhibit, but his nose must have scented the three men as they approached and then began to shovel. All those minutes of unnatural nearness until he could rise and resume the usual distance between moose and men.
And imagine the men working their shovels carefully along the sides of the stilled moose; imagine the man who brushed lightly the snow away from the great marbles of the moose’s eyes.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary. … A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, from the essay now known as “Civil Disobedience”
It was a moment of peace and magic. Forty of us stood on the muddy flood plain of the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A woman walked around and blessed us with a smoking bundle of sage. A Native American man drummed and sang. The tones and the smoke called up the memories of the Susquehannocks who once lived in this place. Snowflakes breezed through the air. A bald eagle flew over, as if in silent support. The time felt sacred. The act felt like The Right Thing to Do.
We had come to this site to protest the building of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline. Behind us loomed a large red drill assembly that workers had been operating only minutes before to test the geological make-up of our bedrock. What they were finding was a lot of quartz and schist. This was no surprise to us. Once we arrived and surrounded their implements of destruction, the men shut off the machinery and retreated to their vehicles at the top of the hill. We could see them calling the authorities on their cell phones. We had clogged the process with our whole weight, and without touching anything or anyone. Now we waited for what would come next. It would probably include the appearance of the local police.
This pipeline is still in the proposal stage. But residents along its path have been protesting it for months. The goal of this Oklahoma-based company is to transport tons of natural gas from the fracking fields of northern Pennsylvania to a harbor in the Chesapeake Bay, where it can be exported and sent to other countries. The goals of our community members are to protect the land and our way of life. Carving a 42-inch pipeline through some of the most productive farmland in the country, as well as through conservation land and Native American archaeological sites, seems to be an ill-advised and unnecessary endeavor at best. Especially when no one here – except our governmental officials – will ever benefit from the project. This area includes the most seismically active portion of the state, too. People this morning had been talking about hearing booms and feeling shakes during the last two weeks. Perhaps the earth is already responding to the intrusion.
So far, our efforts have been limited to written and spoken words. I wrote my official protest letter to the Feds before the deadline last fall. I mailed copies to my legislators – all of whom had gotten thousands of dollars’ worth of campaign money from the pipeline company. I wrote a letter to the editor, and it was published in the local newspaper. I joined my township’s protest planning committee. I put an anti-pipeline sign in our front yard. I spoke on the subject at several township supervisors’ meetings. I’ve been lightly involved in the opposition. But apart from the sign in the yard, it’s all been a lot of talk, talk, talk.
Then came the e-mailed announcement, couched in secrecy. It revealed the details of a “non-violent, direct-action event.” We were asked to show up at this exploratory drill site at 9 a.m., to disrupt the work, and to see what happened as a result. We were advised to keep the time and place a secret, so that the workers wouldn’t be tipped off in advance. And the organizers were clear about the risks of arrest. We would be walking on presumed public land, owned by the regional electric company and not posted as private property. But if the police could prove otherwise, we could be arrested. Anyone wanting to avoid the threat of jail could leave the site at any time without harsh judgment from any of the others. But we had had enough Talk. It was time to Act.
I read the message, and I knew I had to participate. I had never done this kind of thing before. But what kind of Thoreauvian would I be if I didn’t stand up for the land and its people, and to simultaneously work to subdue the interests of one single greedy company? I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. I also knew I had to draw the line at arrest. I had a 12:30 p.m. appointment that I had to keep, without fail. I could give the cause my best three hours. I hoped that it was enough.
So there we stood, in the cold and muddy marsh, along with members of the news media, waiting for the police to come. When they did drive up an hour later, the gray-haired chief was nice enough on the surface. He told us that he supported our First Amendment rights and the chance to express our opinions about what we believed in. But we were trespassing on the electric company’s land, he said. We were interfering with the company’s work. He warned us that if we were asked to leave and didn’t, we could be arrested as a result. Our leaders gave him a list of ordinances and issues that we wanted answers to. The chief accepted these papers, then walked back to the top of the hill to talk to the company workers, township representatives, and whatever other authorities he could drum up by phone. We just had to wait.
Our group gathered for a pep talk. Odds were good that arrests would be made when the chief came back and issued his final warning. How many of us were willing to stand firm? Some people quickly raised their hands. A few others looked at their phones and planners, figuring out the importance of the other commitments they had on tap for today. One voice said, “This is just our first work stoppage. There will be more opportunities to do this in the future. Is what we’ve done today enough for now? Or is this one so important that we should go all the way?” He was leaning toward leaving, I could tell. He looked like the kind of guy who could keep a busy schedule.
But another opinion chimed in. “If not NOW, then WHEN?” Murmurs of agreement answered her. In the end, though, we each had to make our own decision. Should we stay or should we go?
When the chief returned after an hour of negotiations, he brought us disappointing news. The permit issues that we had insisted upon didn’t apply to the pipeline company’s work because it was a utility. And the electric company still considered us to be trespassers. I didn’t listen to the rest of his explanations. I quietly turned and walked away, heading down the road to my parked car. Another woman hustled past me a minute later. “Are they arresting people?” I asked, without looking back.
“Yes,” she said.
“I thought they would.”
I got in the car and quickly drove straight back into the Real World, where life and business appeared to have proceeded without interruption from what we had done, demanded, and accomplished this morning. All sorts of feelings surfaced. I was proud to have participated in the protest. But I had twinges of regret about choosing not to be arrested in the end.
I wondered and worried about my fellow protestors for the rest of the day. It turned out that eight of them had been arrested. By early evening, they had all been released and were said to be back home “eating pizza,” our leaders told us. Our story – THEIR story, really – was front page news the next day. The protest had been picked up by the Associated Press and by a variety of environment-related news outlets, too. We were sort of famous, temporarily. I could find myself in the background of some of the photos floating around online. I was glad that I had been there.
What did I gain from this act of modern-day civil disobedience? A lot of self satisfaction in supporting a cause I believe in. A new anti-pipeline button. A small piece of schist-encrusted quartz that I picked up as a memento from the mud near the drill. And the reassuring scent of sage embedded in my winter coat. Still, no arrest record. And yet, after the pipeline company files its official proposal with the Feds in March, we may still have many such “direct-action” challenges ahead of us. I will likely have to make another tough decision on another day. And quite frankly, I’m not sure which way I’ll go. We’ll have to wait and see.
Corinne H. Smith is the author of “Westward I Go Free: Tracing
Thoreau’s Last Journey.” She is at work on “Henry David Thoreau for
Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities,” to be published by Chicago
Review Press in Spring 2016.
“But the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.” – George Packer, The New Yorker Website, 1/7/15
Today’s killings took place where I walked a few weeks ago, and they took place in a city whose openness to such walking is a statement of both charm and conviction. In his post on the New Yorker website, George Packer gets it right, I think. Each day, when I get up and begin again, I need to say, “Je suis Charlie.” To myself, to those I care about, to those I meet.
I suspect that Henry Thoreau, who had the tongue to say it well, would agree.
There’s a story aslant in our local woods, its angles evident to any walker who pauses to consider. A number of the balsams and white pines under 20 feet in height are tipped variously in imitation of the better-known “drunken forests” of the far north. Those trees, living in the soil above permafrost, aim, as their peers world around do, at the sun. But sometimes – more often lately as the far north warms – when the permafrost melts in planes or pockets, the soil above it drops unevenly. And, of course, the trees follow. The treescape then resembles a geometry problem gone wild.
All of this came into focus after a little wondering while wandering the other day. What, I wondered, can be up with all these partially downed trees? The obvious suspect was our Thanksgiving snowstorm, a sullen fall of white cement that did the usual pruning of limbs and outing of power. Such evidence is everywhere in the neighborhood, awaiting spring clean-up. But the tipped trees took a little more thought and sifting of images; when I recalled a photo of a drunken forest, the story came clear.
Our lesser conifers caught the same heavy Thanksgiving snow as their bigger relations, and, as the storm wore on, they bowed before that weight and wind’s additions. Then, under the stress, the little neighborhoods of their root-balls began to give way, pull from the earth. “Root-ball” is really the wrong word for our conifers’ attachments, because it implies depth. Firs in our old glacial lands spread their root-fingers across the forest floor, rather than diving down where nutrients are spare and rocks are plentiful. Maybe root-hands is a better phrasing. And so, until the ground freezes and a locks in their holds on the land, little firs are prone to being partially uprooted, tipped by top-weight.
Just so our nearby drunken woods, now added headache hung over from the “revels” of our holiday storm.
By Corinne H. Smith
“How far the woodpecker’s tapping is heard! And no wonder, for he taps very hard as well as fast, to make a hole, and the dead, dry wood is very resounding withal. Now he taps on one part of the tree, and it yields one note; then on that side, a few inches distant, and it yields another key; propped on its tail the while.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 10, 1853
On the last day of 2014, I went for a winter walk with a friend. It was intensely cold in southern Vermont – too cold for us to walk the long path we preferred, even though no snow covered the ground. Instead, we sauntered briskly around his neighborhood and came back around to stand in front of his home.
He introduced me to one of his neighbors, and the three of us chatted out in the middle of the street. All the while I was distracted by the soft tapping of a woodpecker on a nearby tree. My companions didn’t seem to be bothered by it. They did hear and acknowledge the sound when I mentioned it to them. While they talked on, I scrutinized the tree that I believed the sound was coming from. It was taller than a three-story house, so there was plenty of bark-covered territory to inspect. Still, I didn’t see the bird. Where could it be? I had to know.
Locating a woodpecker is a study in both acoustics and movement. You must both listen and look. I turned away from the human talk to sidle closer to one side of the tree. I examined every inch of its edges, looking for any small silhouetted and bobbing outline. No bird. But the tapping never stopped. It sounded as though someone was constantly worrying a baseball into a worn catcher’s mitt, over and over and over again. Our conversation hadn’t stopped it. And my quiet stalking around the trunk didn’t slow it down, either.
I made it to the other side of the tree and did another surface scan, beginning at the bottom. Finally I caught movement connected with sound, very close to the top. The woodpecker was hanging onto a cross branch that reached high over us. Unlike Thoreau’s bird, this one was focused on just one section of just one limb. It was digging deep for insect food on this cold day. All I could see from ground level was its white and mottled tummy, and the motion of its head and beak attacking the wood.
Now I could point it out to my friend. “Can you see red, or any other identifying marks?” he asked, squinting into the sun.
I didn’t have my binoculars or bird books with me. “No. Just his white tummy, from this angle and distance. Although there are people who could tell you what the species is just by listening to the pattern of the taps.”
“Unfortunately, I am not one of them,” I admitted.
Another neighbor came out for a walk. When she saw that we were all looking up, she pulled her head back to do the same and asked, “What are we looking at?”
“A woodpecker,” I said. I raised my arm and described which branch he was on.
“Oh, yeah, I see it. Nice.” And she power-walked away.
Sure, this woodpecker was easy enough to spot when someone else showed you exactly where he was drilling. I had done all of the work to “find” this guy. I was frustrated at how casual this discovery was for everyone else around me. If the air had been warmer, I would have watched this bird for the better part of an hour. By myself, no doubt.
Maybe woodpecker-watching isn’t just a lesson for the eyes and for the ears. Maybe this little bird is a teacher of humility, too.
“Each town should have a primitive forest where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. All Walden Woods might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles in the north of the town, might have been our huckleberry field. . . . Journal, 10/15, 1859.
Let’s begin the new year with praise for the Commons – what we hold in common, what we hope in common, what we walk in common.
Five or so years ago, I took a walk into our town Commons, a two-hundred-acre stamp of wood- and wetland set aside for wanderings and recreation. Already, after a few years along these trails, I was growing attached to them and to the trees that always awaited me there. So the sound of saws snarling unsettled me; as I walked deeper into the woods, the saws grew louder. Near the heartland of the Commons lies a pitch pine barren, once a common finding in our area, now a rare one. The cutting was going on there, and, as I approached I heard the familiar crack followed by the gathering rush of toppling as a tree went down.
No little outrage quickened my pace. The saws of the world, even here? I said to myself. Even in the Commons?
Here is the moment to remind myself that it’s always good to get the full story before boarding the express to outrage. Here is compression of that story: the cutting in progress aimed at large white pines that had overshadowed their smaller pitch pine neighbors; the Commons were “in succession,” shifting into their next stage. But the pitch pines and their barren were now unusual, deemed worth preserving, and, with some thinning, they would thrive. Okay, I thought, let’s see.
To ring in this new year and celebrate its possibility, I went for a walk in the Commons. The air was sharp, the sky open faced. And in the barrens heartland, the pitch pines rose from the general scrub like columns of gray smoke; then their thick needles poked the sky. The barrens had an expansive feel that infused me with hope for what’s ahead. Here and there, I could see the aging stump of a white pine, and from one I looked aloft, imagining the 80-foot tree that stood there and the way it would have obscured the sky.
The selective cutters had done well, I thought. In one tiny grove, more than 50 pitch pines aimed at becoming full trees; each had been given a chance; a few would become the grove’s dominant trees. And the barrens, with its wide spacing of trees would provide walking reminder of what once was usual in our area.
Our Commons now has its uncommon barren and its common paths, where I and others have a place to wander throughout the coming year. What we hold in common is a place both rare and usual; it is where we often walk to find ourselves.
Best wishes for the Commons of 2015.
Every so often, events, or words, fall and align themselves just so. You may be muddling along amid the little collisions of a day, making a mess of this or that, when you are taken over by a moment of grace, when, after a moment, you look out and say, “that is, or sounds, as it should be.” Part of what has kept me attending to Henry Thoreau over time is his habit of finding and recording such moments; he teaches me to be alert for the same.
And so it was that during a recent holiday drive from family to family, we slipped a disc into the car’s audio system and began to listen to a recorded essay sent my way by a teacher-friend some months before. The silvered disc had been in the car all that time, but I am slow to change habits, and I’d never adopted the one of listening to prose on tape or disc. Slow study, I know. Let’s just say that the delay in listening to Franklin Burroughs read his essay Compression Wood made it all the more pleasurable.
Summarizing Burrough’s essay – 52 minutes in reading – is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to both recommend it and think a bit about a moment early in the piece. Here’s the moment:
“It probably doesn’t make much difference whether you stay home or light out for the territories. Even Thoreau, who strove to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point, often felt, as he said, ‘a certain doubleness, by which I stand as remote from myself as from another,’ and that enabled him to see Concord as though it were a distant land from which he was writing home to a kinsman. Something about writing, or even about the committed kind of reading that is a vicarious form of writing, takes you well away from your life and makes you homesick for it.” – Franklin Burroughs, Compression Wood (first published in The American Scholar, Vol.67, No. 2, Spring, 1998)
Here, of course, is Henry Thoreau, whose spirit runs through the essay even as his name does not reappear. And there is the beauty of the phrased summary of Thoreau’s effort “to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point.” But what compelled me was a full-body feeling of assent that to write or read well, to find your way to some truth, requires moving “well away from your life,” where you can then be “homesick for it.”
Yearning, it struck me, is a fine way to be awake to your life, which vibrates then like a plucked string. Every day when we write or read or walk, we create this distance. And then, with some luck and commitment, we find our way home. This seems a good way to aim toward the new year.
Added note: I’ve provided a link to a podcast of Burroughs essay, which contains a territory expansive and wonderful. It is a perfect companion when you are going somewhere.
Today is short work. That seems appropriate to Thoreau’s 12/21/54 entry on Americans’ love of jest. But what catches my eye as I read through the entry is the paragraph before it; it shines like a mirror of my own thoughts:
We are tempted to call these the finest days of the year. Take Fair Haven Pond, for instance, a perfectly level plain of white snow, untrodden as yet by any fisherman, surrounded by snow-clad hills, dark evergreen woods, and reddish oak leaves, so pure and still. The last rays of the sun falling on the Baker Farm reflect the clear pink color. I see the feathers of a partridge strewn along on the snow a long distance, the work of some hawk perhaps, for there is no track.
“So pure and still.” Yes, and there is also the strew of feathers to remind us of life’s action, of what may fall from the sky. Still, it is time for a walk in the woods.
Those of us who walk the woods prize the sense of solitude we find there, with its expansive chance to breathe and watch without speaking. And yet – also true, I think – we rarely feel alone, in part because we become keen in our tracings of other animals whose prints, feathers and tufts of fur are everywhere. And woods-walkers also develop a heightened sensitivity for movement, especially that on the periphery of vision, where once, (in the old world, and, perhaps, in the new) predators kept track of us. All of that is part of the everyday walking world.
Here, on the other hand, is another sign of presence that is rare and random, yet common enough to make me wonder if you too find it on occasion. Yesterday on my way to local woods, I came upon a small balsam fir. Okay, not uncommon; this is, after all, Maine. But this one twinkled with strings of tiny colored lights, even though it was far enough into the woods to be unlinked with any particular house. And no extension cord ran long yards over the ground to point to such linkage. Easy enough then to conclude that the lights were battery-powered. But whose presence did this sudden holiday tree signal?
The lights winked in the dark woods, growing brighter as the sun slid behind the trees and the early dusk came on. I felt a smile play across my face. Usually, I’m not wild about human announcement of presence in our common woodlands, but here at the winter solstice in diminutive form were reminders of the communal light we share; here were dots of color dressing the dark. They felt like tiny kin to the companionable yellow light cast from the window of a hut on a winter night.
Every once in a while – and that is as often as it should happen – I happen upon some little lights or other ornaments in the woods; they are kin to a quick smile from a stranger passing by in a crowd, reminder of the light side of who we are.
Best wishes to all for the solstice/holiday season.
A recent conversation sent me, as many do, to consider what Henry Thoreau had to say on the matter. The trigger-question was about what separates art from life. Or, put differently, how does an artist integrate her or his art with life? Or vice versa? This is an age-old question, but also one that each generation bumps into. And it seems more pressing with the proliferation of art objects and us. What’s necessary, an artist may ask.
It seems to me that Henry Thoreau saw his life as his primary artistic expression – “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art.” Thoreau sought to be awake to and to affect the quality of each of his days. He deemed being so awake and aware the hardest of assignments.
Yesterday, while I was walking, I mulled the question further. It strikes me that a problem with art is captured by the word “representation.” Thoreau, for example, wrote to represent the experience and experimentation that he sought out every day during his Walden years. But when we pull apart the word, we get re…presentation, or presentation of something again. So, in a representation life is not art, it is instead an attempt to present some of that life again.
I think that Thoreau worked on this question near the end of Walden in his story about the artist from Kouroo. This artist sets out to make a staff – note, it’s not a representation of a staff, but the object itself. The artist’s goal is that the stick be perfect, and he is willing to spend whatever time necessary to achieve that perfection, because, as Thoreau writes, “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” p.326, (Princeton Edition)
As the artist sinks into his work, time disappears, dynasties fall, all of earth’s history passes by. I make of this that the markers – minutes, hours, years, etc. – of usual life vanish. And the artist enters a timeless act of creation. As he works, and whole eras and worlds go by, he concentrates on his staff; his whole life becomes the work.
When he finishes the staff, the artist looks up; everything is different. He is elsewhere. His staff is not a representation. It simply is, as is he.
So, perhaps when we create work in a way that means we “do nothing else in [our] li[ves],” the division between art and life disappears. We are present, as is our art.
There are also Thoreau’s thoughts about “volatile truth” at the top of page 325 in the Princeton Edition. Here’s he’s reflecting on the immediacy of creation and how its “residue,” the leftover language on the page, is inadequate to the moment it sought to capture. This again points to time’s passage as widening the gap between life (lived in the present) and art (re…presentation from the past).
And, finally, here’s a short scene from a recent visit to the Picasso Museum. Perhaps, it’s just me, but I find myself distracted from the art on the walls by the people surging around me; they seem to mimic the art, to take on its characteristics, but in more compelling fashion. Life becomes what I watch; I get separated from it. The distinction between what’s on the wall and what’s around me blurs, the framing gets rearranged. Then, I come to my senses.
At the Picasso
At the reopened Picasso
Museum, bobbing amid the incoming
tide near the man with the out-
sized nose and the woman tipped
sideways by her chest and
every one is breaking up is
about to leave the frame
when I smell the orange and
turn – the woman next to me
peels it idly (like any breaker
of rules); the whole room
rushes back into place.