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 mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native kind not found in the village. I sent one to a distinguished naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend the sides of the room by short impulses, like a squirrel, which it resembled in its motions. At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes, and along my sleeve, and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter close, and dodged and played at bo-peep with it; and when at least I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterward cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.” ~ “Brute Neighbors,” WALDEN
This week I partnered on a Thoreau-related project with a young fifth-grader named Henry. We met at Thoreau Farm and set up our stuff in the first floor parlor. For one part of our project, I needed some water. So I walked into the tiny kitchenette, found a glass in a cabinet, filled it with water, and took it into the parlor.
After we finished our project, I took the glass back to the kitchen. I dumped the water down the drain, rinsed the glass a bit, and left it in the sink. I hadn’t noticed anything else in the sink when I had first filled the glass. But now I thought I saw something small and dark in there. Perhaps, with a tail. I turned on the overhead light to look again. Sure enough, it was a tiny mouse. It was cowering against the stainless steel side. Had I accidentally dumped water on it? I hoped not. I spoke quietly to it and apologized. Then I went back to find Henry.
“I found something in the kitchen sink, Henry,” I said. “A live mouse.” His eyes got big. “Want to see it?” I asked. He nodded.
We walked into the kitchenette, and he peeked over the edge. “Oh, wow!” He hurried back to the parlor to tell his mother what he had seen. She was not a fan of mice. She shivered and stayed right where she was standing.
“I want to rescue and relocate it,” I said. “Will you help me, Henry?” He agreed. We walked back. I noticed that Henry kept his distance, though. He stayed away from the counter and let me, the grown-up, manage the task at hand. I had decided that putting the mouse outside was an unacceptable solution. Where else could I move it, away from the kitchen? The basement.
I grabbed a paper towel. “Okay, I’m going to grab it somehow, and we’re going to take it down to the basement,” I said. I looked at the mouse, who was still cowering. I didn’t know where it had come from or where its nest was. Naturally, there were spots along the edgework that didn’t quite meet the walls. Maybe the mouse lived under the cabinets. Maybe it had run across the counter in search of crumbs, slipped into the sink, and couldn’t find a toehold on the silvery walls. It had been temporarily trapped. Well, the basement should make a fine home for it, too. “I’m going to pick it up somehow,” I said again.
“Maybe you can put it in the glass to move it,” Henry suggested.
“Good idea. Except that I don’t really want to use that drinking glass. I wonder if we have any paper cups.” I opened a lower door and spied a few. I loosened one from the others. I put it into the sink and pushed the mouse into it with the paper towel. I covered the opening so it couldn’t get out.
“Its tail is sticking out of the cup.”
“That’s okay. Let’s go.” Henry fairly ran to the basement door, turned on the lights, and led the way down the steps. I followed, carrying the covered cup.
“Now. Where should I put it?” The basement is semi-finished. The limestone rocks of the foundation jut out from every side. I guessed it didn’t matter where I put the mouse. It would figure out the best place to go, on its own. So I laid the cup on its side near a central wall. I took the paper towel away and peeked inside. Now it was the mouse who had the big eyes, looking right at me. I wished it well. Henry and I backed up. We watched the cup rock back and forth slightly, as the mouse moved around inside. It would be okay. We didn’t wait for its re-appearance. We trudged back up the steps. Our work for the day was finished, all around.
Well, Mr. Thoreau, we didn’t go the extra mile that you did. We didn’t deliberately feed this mouse and let it run all over our clothes. I guess I did kind of play peek-a-boo with it, though. And we saved it for you and put it in the basement. Now we can confirm that one of your houses is once again enlivened by mice.
“Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine,” E.B. White wrote of “Walden” in a 1953 New Yorker piece. “It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest.”
The other day a Google alert that feeds me regular notice of Thoreau’s appearance in media across the web, offered me a link to a reflective piece that had just appeared on Salon.com. Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey’s pleasureable essay opened at the end of E.B. White’s life and then rolled back through his long attachment to Walden and the many copies White owned, read and gave away, including a 1964 edition (complete with a rain-shedding duraflex cover) to which he wrote the introduction.
The traced arc of White’s connection to Walden made me look back over my own, a mostly pleasant stroll through seasons of learning and teaching, and that, in turn, brought on reflections from over three years of writing for The Roost. How many books and writers could both sustain my interest and provide so many points of thinking and writing departure? Answer: one.
If one accepts White’s proposal, the question follows: how do you know when you’ve picked up and read your life-book? For me the answer arrived slowly. My first reading of Walden was hardly a reading at all. Assigned the book in a high school English class, I turned dutifully to it on evening one and fell promptly asleep. The pattern continued through the three weeks we considered sections of the book, and there was also an alarming transference to class time, where my chronic head-bobbing intensified, lowering my teacher’s already low estimation of me. I missed entirely Thoreau’s discontent with the sort of schooling I was sleeping through, and I missed his affection for the outdoor world where I felt truly animated. I did benefit from the cautionary message of this sleepy passage years later when I began to teach Walden, but my first meeting with Henry Thoreau was akin to passing someone of the street.
Jump to college and a reading with a touch more adhesive. I got – mostly by listening to lectures – some of Thoreau’s central critique of his (and, by extension, my) world, and I noted that the place he went for insight and wisdom was like mine, wooded and hilly. All good, but not exactly a scrivmance.
Then there was the long, oblique approach to my life’s work, teaching. By the time I landed in an English Department some 20 years along, I knew quite a bit about teaching and writing and a lot about being outside, but I’d not returned to Walden, though as a journal editor, I’d received any number of pieces to which it was important. Then, a year or two into my English career, my department chair said, “So here we are in Concord, and, since Phil retired, no one’s been teaching Walden. You spend too much time in the woods. How about you?”
Of such questions long affection is born. I arrived at my life-book late, much later, for instance than White did, but, after 25 years of readings, teachings, and any number of epiphanies, major and minor, I’m still turning its pages, still awake to its possibilities. I keep Walden handy.
Henry Thoreau and Pope Francis
By Corinne H. Smith
“To Philadelphia. 7 A. M., to Boston, 9 A. M. to New York, by express train, land route. … Arrive at 10 P. M.; time, four hours from New York, thirteen from Boston, fifteen from Concord. … [The next day I] Looked from the cupola of the State-House, where the Declaration of Independence was declared. The best view of the city I got.”
No, these words weren’t written by Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia. They’re from Henry David Thoreau’s journal from November 1854. Our favorite transcendentalist had made the journey south by train to the City of Brotherly Love in order to deliver a lecture at the Spring Garden Institute. It was the only time he visited the place, and it was the farthest south he would ever travel.
Most likely, you have seen some of the footage from Pope Francis’s time in Philadelphia. He was a busy man. Among other activities, the Pope gave a speech in front of Independence Hall. He attended the World Family conference. He rode along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway several times. He attended an evening concert and conducted a mass on a special stage set up in front of the Museum of Art. Thousands upon thousands of people came from around the world to catch a glimpse of him, to be blessed by him, and to eagerly listen to his messages. Many more watched him on live broadcasts from home.
By comparison: Henry Thoreau was hardly famous when he was here. He had just published his second book, “Walden; or, Life in Woods.” But instead of talking up his time at the pond to his Tuesday-night audience, Henry had decided to give the lecture he called “The Wild.” Eventually it would become the second half of his essay, “Walking.” It now includes two of the most quoted Thoreau sentences we know today: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World;” and “In short, all good things are wild and free.”
Thoreau reached Philadelphia on Monday night. He had all of Tuesday to tour the city. Thanks to his escort — Emerson friend and local Unitarian minister William Furness — he hit some high spots. Literally. Mountain-lover Thoreau climbed eight stories to reach the top of the cupola of Independence Hall and to get a higher view of downtown. He also climbed the hill behind the Fairmount Waterworks along the Schuylkill River, in order to see the city from its western edge. Then he and Furness spent time examining the exhibits at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Thoreau was amused to see that the moose on display in Philadelphia was not as large as the one he had seen in Maine the year before.
By comparison: Pope Francis spoke to thousands of people – not only in front of Independence Hall; but also in front of the Museum of Art, which now stands upon that hill next to the Fairmount waterworks. When he rode along the parkway in the Pope-mobile, he passed right by the Academy of Natural Sciences. The museum is in a different building and in a different part of the city than it was in 1854. But it still has a moose on display. It turns out that Pope Francis and Henry Thoreau stopped in some of the same places and followed some of the same routes across the city, 161 years apart.
Alas! According to our best information, Henry Thoreau’s lecture was barely noticed by Philadelphians. No review of it appeared in the newspapers. Even Reverend Furness hadn’t been able to attend it. Furness wrote to Emerson that from what one of his parishioners had said, it sounded as if “the audience was stupid & did not appreciate him.” A scholar in the 1960s was only slightly more polite when he summed up his research on Thoreau’s trip this way: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that his impact on Philadelphia was even less than a soft thud.” (Charles Boewe, “Thoreau’s 1854 Lecture in Philadelphia,” English Language Notes, December 1964.) Henry Thoreau’s message of the importance of having wild areas to explore must have fallen on few and deaf ears.
By comparison: In 2015, it’s good to see that SOMEONE has delivered a series of successful speeches in Philadelphia, and to a massive and receptive audience, at that. And on this American trip, Pope Francis continued to repeat his concerns about saving the environment. What do you know? Perhaps “The Wild” is finally Landing with a loud thud here.
Corinne H. Smith will be speaking on “Henry David Thoreau: From Concord to Philadelphia … and to Us Today,” at the Philips Autograph Library, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 17, 2015, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, see http://wcuhealthsciences.ticketleap.com/henry-david-thoreau-from-concord-to-philadelphia/.
The entrance to the National Library of Ireland looks out over an attractive courtyard that fronts the parliament building. Once inside the library, a quick right turn takes you through a hallway of Joyce photos with a short bio that notes Joyce’s early aspiration as a singer and then down a flight of stairs for a visit with William Butler Yeats. Having long admired Yeats’ poetry, I was eager to get there. As I descended, I heard a voice that sounded like creaky furniture: ” I will arise and go now…” And my mind filled in the next words – and go to Innisfree. The rhythm set up in my head, and I mouthed the words as the old, rough-jointed voice read on. That must be Yeats himself, I thought, and it was. The poem ended, and for the next reading a famous Irish actor took over, sailing me to Byzantium.
Well that was a worthy beginning, I thought, and then I began to nose into the corners of this permanent exhibit, looking over notebooks and letters and manuscripts, with their fascinating cross outs and emendations. Not far in, my eye was drawn by an opened volume with a familiar word on its title page – Walden, it said. And there was Yeats’ personal copy of Walden, with a note beside it pointing to the book as inspiration for The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I read the poem again. Of course…there in its early lines is the cabin that the poet will build, and, a little later, the rows of beans that he will sow. And there, as solace when the poet returns to the gray world of the village, is the memory of the isle, the lake, the “bee-loud glade” to which he can return if he chooses.
It’s an early poem in Yeats’ work, and much greater poems followed, among them the always prescient Second Coming, but the need to step away, if only for a while, resonates for the young Yeats, and for many of us. Often, I think, we read our poets with the same hope.
“To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order, — not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in , or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker, — not the Knight, but Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.” Thoreau, Walking
These familiar words lead us into Thoreau’s famous essay, continuing a run of hyperbole designed, I think, to alert us to the possibilities in the pedestrian, and also in the local. Two feet and a bit of “fancy” are all it takes to slip from the usual into the mythic. Again and again, I’ve found that to be true, as recently as yesterday, when September’s angled light, a windless warmth and the drowsy insect-hum of late afternoon transformed our local woods into another land from which I emerged dazzled at walk’s end.
Today, however, we do leave for another land, traveling for the first time to Ireland, surely a place of mist and myth. How will we make our way there? Thoreau’s essay seems the right guide, supplementing some of our research reading in usual guidebooks with guidance for our spirits. In fact I know of few better ways to find the local particulars of a place, the moments and markets that become memories, than to visit as a Walker Errant.
Both parts of my new/old title count, I think. The foot by foot parsing of way and place bring us to each new sight and corner at the pace of perception. And, as we learn and relearn over time, just as losing our ways can make can make the local foreign, it can also make the foreign familiar.
Travel note: with luck, I’ll be able to check in on The Roost and post an Irish thought or three from time to time. But, if errant wanderings or links prevent that, I’ll look forward to rejoining you in a few weeks.
On September 13th in 1853, Thoreau set out from Boston Harbor on his second trip to Maine. “It was a warm and still night,” wrote Thoreau, “and the sea was as smooth as a small lake in summer, merely rippled.” A little later, he noted about the view from the sea, “We behold those features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”
This September’s early weeks seem also to be “merely rippled,” the sort of season that invites one out on the water. The summer crowds have dispersed, and as you float in solitude, or paddle languidly, “those features which the discoverers saw” are “apparently unchanged.”
Two Times to the Sea
September 8th: It is warm, and the day is suffused with a late summer, insect-hum; such days suggest pause, equipause, we might call it, in honor of the oncoming equinox.
I come in to Ragged Island from the west on mildly-ruffled water with a light north wind opposing the incoming tide, and I ride on today’s little sea-breathing, the swell that swells only to a few feet and then falls. The stubby rock arms of the coves reach a few meters into the sea, and, on a calm day – this one – they create little protected inlets, where the seaweed sways with the inflow and the tidal rocks draw breath with each outflow.
On either side of me, there’s the emerald backside to shoaling water with its inset of opal-white as swells arrive and lift themselves on the ledges’ backs.
Today’s tide – very high, an 11-foot one – lands me on the sea-grass fringe of the northwest side, where the small beach features a huge drift-log – say 20 inches in diameter – perfect for sitting. I notice that the long arm of rock that reaches west at beach’s edge has a 5-runged, wooden ladder perched atop a broken-off boulder; I don’t wade to it and climb, but perhaps I should have. Ladders have their lure; they go up, the direction of life. But on this day, I’m content with sea-level surveying.
Amid the sea rubble, the remains of a duck, its wingbone disappearing into the mass of feathers still intact, the meat all gone – fly until you’re food.
Sitting on my beach-log and looking over all the little, ground-down pieces of the beach, piled a little deeper at the tideline – wash and grind, wash and grind.
On all sides of this island, the rocks are water-battered and rubbed smooth up to heights of 20 feet; it is talk of towering waves.
Later, I read that a California exercise physiologist (who among other projects, has measured the Vo2 Max of mountain lions) has measured big wave surfers’ heart rates (HRs) and found that they stayed at an astounding 180+ throughout a 3-hour stint of surfing (this at the legendary Mavericks break). Even sitting on the beach looking out at the break, their HRs soared. This makes me wonder what my HR is while paddling, even contemplatively. Probably there is some rising graph that tracks with the liveness of the water I’m riding (or watching). It makes me think back to the wave-battered stones on the island; I feel my pulse jump…a bit.
September 15th: a paddle to and from Little Whaleboat Island. Sightings: 4 loons, and they were either molting or first-year loons; clearly loons, but without the distinctive patterning of neck and breast; also, the water where they were hanging about was rife with little loon feathers. As in years past, they were in the indent of water between Lower and Upper Goose islands. I floated with them and “vocalized,” even getting single note answer from one, though “answer” is too strong a word.
Today, a pleasing mix of quiet and ruffled water: in the lee of the Gooses, and, later, out by Little Whaleboat, the water was nearly calm, with a light brush of west wind. On the way out, between Upper Goose and Mere Pt., the water was bumpy, with tide running out and wind amplifying it a bit from the west. Then, the early crossing to L. Whaleboat was choppy, again with wind running 90 degrees off of tide. A mix of waves from west and southwest, but at a foot+ simply enjoyable.
At all the usual pullouts, there’s empty sand and strand; the flattened grass at the “secret” campsite on the south end of Little Whaleboat is starting to rise; the Goslings have gone quiet, as has the anchorage in their shelter.
One butterfly making its way southwest across the reach of water, making perhaps a knot better than I am. Such stamina. A few seals, curious periscopes. Perhaps the last week for the ospreys, who still keen at my approach, even as their nests are long empty; they hang in the air facing the southwest – perhaps they too feel migration’s call.
Last note: The 60-year-old apple tree I’ve watched for years on my favorite islet is, as this spring announced, truly defunct; already, it is weathering to sea-grayed wood. I looked for shoots of offspring, but the miracle of apple islet doesn’t seem set to repeat itself. The islet reverts from eden to the primrose-lined usual, its “features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”
Added note: what didn’t happen to me: video of a breaching whale and kayak-folk from the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-3399
…I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night. Thoreau, Walden
It’s evening, and we’ve gone inside. The day’s colors are damped down; the visual world shows in soft tones tending toward gray. I sit in a pool of lamplight and open a book, reach over and crank the window once to admit a trickle of coolish air and the woods-smell from the pines. The scented air slips in, and with it comes night’s announcement from our resident tree frogs: “TTHHRRRRIILLING,” they seem to trill. “TTHHRRRIILLING!”
The frogs’ call doesn’t exactly invite you out, but it wonders; so now do I. I tend to tuck my days in at dusk, favoring the armchair to the evening amble, favoring, as do many, the light to the dark. There are, of course, reasons for this, among them, post-dinner torpor, accumulated fatigue, and, at times, the bright, visual fire of the screen.
Recently, in high daylight, a fox ran through the yard; it appeared from beneath the rhododendrons and made a linear track across the grass, disappearing by the corner of the garage. I got a good look: this fox was a scruffy affair, with clots of fur hanging off a too-thin body in this season of plenty. His appearance, physical and temporal, suggested some sickness. Foxes are crepuscular in habit, night creatures really, when they are suggestions of motion bearing teeth amid shadows. What was night doing out in the light?
Neighbors immediately thought, disease, and they were probably right; I began to think about daytime visits from visions of the night, and then about my own visits with the night, times when the usual became strange and new, and I was awake to it.
As companion in this wondering, I had also my visits to a local exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Night Visions (ongoing until October 18th) is an inspired idea and collection that looks at American paintings at and of night from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, the time of transition from old-style darkness to our illuminated contest with night.
A walk through the exhibition is a walk back into another kind of darkness and then back into our own attempts to light the night. Both are, as the tree frogs remind me, “TTHHRRRRIILLING”; they reminded me also of Thoreau’s meditation on walking at night, which deepens to praise of getting lost, as a way awakening and being, finally, found in his Walden chapter, The Village (see passage at this post’s outset). Notably, I think, this meditation also immediately precedes his story of being jailed for nonpayment of taxes – another awakening venture into a form of darkness.
When you adopt a mind of night as you read, you may find that there’s also a fair amount of night-wandering and night-musing in and at Walden. In pursuit of being awake, Thoreau did not confine himself to the day.
And even now, Walden night-swimmers walk in from the west side woods to the little coves near the railroad tracks…not that I have ever done so…to make their acquaintance with the night.
Here’s a link to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibition:http://www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/exhibitions/2015/nv/
Thoreau’s Journal, September 8th, 1846:
Hard bread—& pork getting short—go up—Mount
Cranberries and blue berries clouds—wind—-rain rocks
September 5th, 2015: A day on Moosilauke.
Cool morning trail, slanting sun, temperature about 50 – Asquam Ridge Trail
I begin along the Baker River, which flows out from Jobildunc Ravine, for an early mile; then, the trail slants away above itself, above the river, whose sound fades as if the dry end of summer has toweled up its last flow. And I am climbing across the slope’s grain, rising easily toward the next angled switch; and so I trace giant Zs into the ridge until I reach its crest, where the trees are smaller and the moss lies thick on the old stones. In one rare mud patch, the gouge of a moose-print, the grains of dirt still moist and fine, the moose just there, no longer here.
Jim is one of those mountains that isn’t. At least that’s true for “listers,” those who like to measure accomplishments one after the other. To make NH’s official 4000-footer list, a mountain must rise 200 or more feet from the col that links it to a higher, neighboring peak. Jim, despite a sizable drop on its west ridge, which joins it to the mass of Moosilauke, falls just short. And so Jim gets overlooked, but he is a fine mountain…or nice bump on the ridge…with a short boreal forest thick with moss and pronounced sense of summit.
From Jim I go to Blue, which truly is a ridgy knuckle and not a faux-peak. Though Blue too has its merits, chief of which is an outlook into the seldom traveled, marbles-in-mouth Jobildunc Ravine; there the Baker River wells from the ground before heading for its union with the Pemigewasset miles to the south.
The approach to Blue also brings me to the Appalachian Trail, or AT, and its iconic white paint blazes; whenever I step onto the AT, I feel the slight buzz of its long strand of connection. Some 1800 miles to the south is Springer Mountain; 300+ to the north is Henry Thoreau’s and Percival Baxter’s Ktaadn. The trail, called the Beaver Brook in this section, is battered as famous ways often are. Where the path on Jim was needle- and moss-softened, the Beaver Brook is hardened dirt and scuffed or pole-scarred stone. For a quarter-mile, where the trail skirts the upper edge of the ravine, it is slow going over great chunks of angled stone, the legos of the recent glacier. Then it is simply a foot-trench up a mild slope to the ice-worn roundness of Moosilauke itself.
Today, the unpeopled Asquam Ridge gives way to the little town that is Moosilauke. It is a warm, late summer day, and it is also first-year orientation for the college that owns this mountain; the top is busy with those who would stretch summer and those who have reached the first moments of this memorable four-year prominence. Dartmouth, for all the feet it brings to Moosilauke, has been a good steward, removing – over time – the shelters that once dotted the summit, lining the trails with scree walls to contain walkers, and providing clear signage to direct the many who would be disoriented. The sedgy grasses grow right up to the scree walls, as do the mountains cranberries in red profusion, and the crowds confine themselves largely to the summit rocks and foundation remnants from the old Victorian summit hotel.
I reach the summit and then walk back north, counting as always cairns. If I ignore the superfluous first cairn right next to the top, it’s five cairns to visit my dad. Eight years ago, we scattered his ashes at this cairn; now whenever I visit, I seat myself on a flat rock facing west, lean back against its cone and talk quietly about whatever life-thoughts I’ve carried up here with me. Today, it’s a usual – the years I’ve walked through and my hope to keep walking toward his 80th and 85th birthdays, both of which we celebrated on this summit. After an irksome, summer run of minor leg injuries, I’ve reached his cairn in 2 1/2 hours, and my legs feel live. “It’s all good,” I murmur, repeating his last words.
The day pivots on this meditative half hour at the cairn; rising to walk again, I breeze by the jumble of rocks and people at the top and on along the old Carriage Road, across a mile of ridge to the South Peak, which is usually less peopled, though today it holds a group of eight 30-somethings, led – it soon becomes apparent – by a linear-talking, earnest hiker who likes the word “scheduled.” They natter on about work; two of them flirt exclusively; their leader gestures at far peaks in a proprietary way. As they rise to leave, a falcon appears, riding a thermal, climbing quickly. I watch the bird, and a few of the group stop and wonder aloud about it. “A falcon, I think,” I say. “They nest over to the west in Oliverian Notch.” Their leader’s “not sure.” And then they leave and quiet washes over this minor summit like a topping tide.
What’s left after lunch on South Peak? The day’s descent, which for the first mile+ faces right into the southern sun. In a word, it’s hot. I opt for gravity-assisted quick-stepping and soon reach the shaded slanting traverse that comes finally to the river down. I reach my car some 5 hours after I set off, noting with a little satisfaction that a lithe twenty-something who set off just before me, and whom I’ve seen cantering along ridges a few times, has just gotten back too. I look back up to the broad ridge where a line of cairns show the way to which I will return.
Post-note: The finest mountain sauntering blog I know is Steve Smith’s – it’s called Mountain Wandering, named after his bookstore, The Mountain Wanderer, in Lincoln NH. Lots of fine photos; quiet, precise writing. Here’s its address:http://mountainwandering.blogspot.com/
Labor Day’s approach joins morning’s slanting light to make me think of work. Centerpiece of many days and visitor to all, work comes in various guises; still, what each of us identifies as her or his real work, what we embrace rather than what we are assigned, can be hard to suss out and even harder to explain.
As a seventeen-year-old, I recall wondering about this question as I wallowed in schoolwork’s many-disciplined demands after a summer of construction work. What would I do for work, eventually, when I left behind the aptly-named homework and summer’s temporary jobs? In the years that followed, I, like many, made my decisions somewhat randomly, and later fell into a form of teaching, which, in time, became my life’s work. It was a work with which I became smitten.
But, throughout a lifetime’s work, the phrase, “real work,” kept appearing with a question mark attached. What was my real work? What should it be? And, as also often happens for me, it took a poet to help this question take fuller shape. Such shape-taking precedes any answer.
Gary Snyder led me into a bar in Texas in pursuit of answer. Snyder, who emerged from the Beat movement and became his own Zen-inflected voice for the wild that Thoreau celebrates in Walking and throughout his other writings, wrote one of the greatest American poems I know, “I Went into the Maverick Bar.” In it a young Snyder, in Farmington, New Mexico to protest despoliation of land and abuse of Indian sovereignty by energy companies, enters a redneck bar, which depends on the very work he’s there to protest. In a quick few lines and images, Snyder limns the curious American admixture of despoiling work and exuberant innocence and remembers his own:
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.
They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness—
I could almost love you again.
(Note: Try as I might, I cannot get my program to allow proper formatting for this excerpt; apologies. Please follow the link at the end of this piece to read the full poem, properly formatted; it’s worth the click…and more.)
But Snyder resolves that instead of cutting (or mining) a life from the wilderness, he must commit himself to what he calls “the real work” of finding and understanding a home. To do so, he must learn his place (two meanings intended) and relations, or as he put it in an interview with Bill Moyers:
The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we’re on and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future. The real work is accepting citizenship in the continent itself.
Snyder’s writing prepared the ground for my later work with Henry Thoreau and the real work he recorded in his journals. Yes, I learned, if ever anyone became “native in [his] heart,” it was Henry Thoreau. His was a daily labor worth celebrating.
And here too, as Labor Day nears, is to your real work, wherever and however you find it.
Links: Here’s a link to Snyder’s poem, I Went into a Maverick Bar: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177249; and here’s a link to his interview with Moyers: http://billmoyers.com/content/here-in-the-mind-daisy-zamora-and-gary-snyder/
In 1846, as summer waned, Henry Thoreau headed north, for his now famous climb of Ktaadn. And as he entered those woods, he found a far wilder world than that of his Concord walks. In a way, Thoreau had gone back in time to an era when large animals populated the woods, an era long vanished in the farm-focus of Concord. Among those animals were bears, seen for their size and power to be fearsome. Now we know black bears as essentially timid animals, even as a few who come to link people with food in backpacks or bird-feeders can become more assertive and garner the label of “problem bears.” We will leave aside that discussion, however, and think only about being in the presence of the large and wild.
As Thoreau worked his way up Ktaadn, he arrived at the belt of black spruce that often defines the highest reach of forest in the north country. These slow-growing, ground-favoring trees can be so thick as to be walked upon (or they can be impenetrable). In this passage from The Maine Woods, Thoreau is atop the trees, looking down:
There was apparently a belt of this kind running quite round the mountain, though, perhaps, nowhere so remarkable as here. Once, slumping through, I looked down ten feet, into a dark and cavernous region, and saw the stem of a spruce, on whose top I stood, as on a mass of coarse basket-work, fully nine inches in diameter at the ground. These holes were bears’ dens, and the bears were even then at home.
This is, atop these trees, a bit of a flight of fancy, because bears don’t generally den at such heights on a mountain, but the point is that Thoreau saw himself in the company of bears. And the mix of treetop-walking in dense spruce and imagined bears made the day exceptional – a few lines later, Thoreau calls it, “certainly the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled.” Which, given his foot-happy ways, is something.
All of this made me recall one of my own mountainside flights of fancy, when I too found myself in the company of bears
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At age fourteen I was off in the hills for the day with a friend; there, I encountered my first bear. That he turned out to be imaginary made him no less impressive, perhaps more so.
Brad and I were 9th-grade classmates, and on this late summer day, we were also valley neighbors in the pocket wilderness beneath midstate New Hampshire’s Cardigan Mountain. His parents had a small cape set on the side of Cream Hill, which rose above our ramshackle place not far from the Fowler River. Summer days, which always held “chores” – usually some form of cutting or dragging brush – also promised either time at the river and in its pools or rambles along the ridges that defined our valley.
On that day, we were climbing the north ridge of Firescrew, the sister peak of Cardigan, whose name casts back to an 1855 forest fire that burned off its crown. The fire grew so intense that the twisting screw of smoke rising from it was visible across the state; hence the name. The north ridge is largely unpeopled, even as, a half-mile away, Cardigan is often overrun with families ascending their first “big” mountain by a short route from the west. Over the four miles up to the ridge, Brad and I had seen no one, and a remote feeling had set in. In the quiet and absence, we’d stopped talking and drifted some yards apart. Each of us, I suppose, was in the strange and fevered little place where fourteen-year-old boys consider the world, which holds distant promise and makes immediate demands in unequal measures. Brad was somewhere up ahead; I was wondering about Lyndy, the girl next door, who sometimes responded when I flicked the lights of my room on and off. That was the closest I could get to speech.
All of this wondering was upended when Brad rushed around the corner, his eyes wild his mouth wide. “B…bb…b…,” he said as he ran toward me. Brad stuttered when excited, so I’d learned to wait for the word. “B…b…b…ear,” the conclusive syllable reached me just as Brad did; then they were gone, around the bend below, the sound of his feet dopplering away. I turned to look up trail, thought I heard something and a huge power-surge blew into my brain.
Later, I’d read about fight or flight response to fear, but the mild phrase does little to describe the moment. Below me, the trail bent left, and I ran toward that opening in the trees. But where the trail angled off, I went straight, running over a fifteen-foot sapling and bashing on through branches and bouncing off trunks. I was a human pinball, a panicked one, if pinballs can be panicked.
I would have kept on had I not pitched off a 3-foot ledge and landed face first. Suddenly, it was quiet; I strained to hear sounds of the pursuing bear. Nothing. Then, floating through the trees, I heard laughter. Bruised, scratched and a little stunned, I couldn’t figure this sound – what was funny? who was laughing?
Well, by now the story is clear to you, and it arrived not long after that in my woods. All those Bs added up only to Brad; there was no bear. “B…b…b…but that sure was funny.” Perhaps.
I don’t recall speaking to Brad for the rest of the day, and I took a fair amount of cleaning up and antiseptic when we finally got home. That night I dreamed of being chased by a bear. And, for summer’s remainder, whenever I climbed into the hills, I kept expecting the bear. That he never appeared made him no less real.
But some years later, when I really saw my first bear, I was so attuned to their possibility in mountain woods, that I simply sat down and watched him/her amble and mumble through some blueberry bushes.
So it is in woods imagined and real.
For me, and I think for many, late August always has an elegiac feel: days shorten, school nears and, suddenly, a spray of red leaves appears in a favorite maple. It is also a rich time, of course – harvest alone ensures a feeling of plenty – but summer’s waning shadows it. Still, even as time tightens, I’ve found that I sometimes vanish into late August, entering the woods of experience in one place, and later appearing somewhere, or as someone, else. What happens in the interim can feel like local magic. Here, in compressed fashion is such a vanishing.
And so I wandered a good time
in the pawed blueberry scraggle
of a northern hilltop
in a field nodding too
with rich goldenrod high grass
and I got
my quart or two
by picking out single berries
small blue globes hung
still on raked bushes
by stepping also
into the pressed stalks
where he paused in each patch.
In this way I lumbered
across the hill’s brow
pale back humped to the sun, and
lost track of the hours lost
the wires’ humming voices
lost the delicate hitched chain
of my own thought
lost too my upright divide
from the life
By Corinne H. Smith
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ~ “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” WALDEN
At the end of our house tours at Thoreau Farm, we encourage people to consider how Thoreau’s philosophies apply to their own lives. How have they chosen to live deliberately? How have they turned thought into action? To share their answers, guests write their declarations on cards and tack them up on our bulletin board. Every once in a while, we collect selections to share with our online audience. Here are our favorites from our most recent visitors.
~ More nature & less stuff! Nature can calm us, protect us, and completely sustain us. We need to care for it now, more than ever. Thank you for the lessons, Henry! ~ Melissa
~ I turn to observe the natural world and share moments and revelations captured through a lens. ~ Raymond
~ I choose to do what aligns most with whatever force it is inside me that compels me to live at all. I don’t hesitate to do things differently. ~ Abby
~ I enjoy being in a private place in nature. I think about the wonderful mixture of gases that I inhale and the biochemical processes of photosynthesis that produce our oxygen, food and water. As I exhale, I thank the plants by giving them the carbon dioxide that they need to live and to continue to extend life on our unique and beautiful planet. ~ Al
~ By continuously reminding myself to come back to the present with no conceptual framework, looking at things (and people!) with wonder and full attention, and realizing the truth and beauty of the unfettered self. ~ Jonathan
~ I make sure I spend some time every day, to listen to the birds & see what nature has brought to my backyard. It brings me peace & happiness – living deliberately. ~ Amy
~ I try and probably fail more often than not. But keep trying because the alternative is unimaginable.
~ I take long walks & hikes. I write poetry. I reared two sons to recognize the earth as their precious second brother. Thank you for such a wonderful tour of Henry’s birthplace!
~ I bought my grandparents old house and am restoring it. Developers wanted to bulldoze it. I am inspired by not only HDT but those who keep his legacy alive! ~ Charles
~ Appreciating and enjoying the little things in life, which really are the big things! ~ Susan
~ I have chosen a career that is in line with my values and also would meld well with Thoreau’s ideas. I have always strived to live simply with relatively few possessions, and put more energy and intention into human and natural interactions. ~ Anoush
~ If you don’t need it – don’t throw it away – find a home for it – someone’s trash = another person’s treasure!
~ I chose to devote my life to helping my fellow veterans, who struggle with their own scars of war, both seen and unseen. I try to tell and show them that someone cares about them very much, and that we never leave our comrades behind. If I can make a difference in their lives, then I have accomplished something worthwhile. ~ JB
~ Using “old technology” in a new way. Rain barrels, battery powered lawn mower, string trimmer
~ What did Thoreau say, “only when I come to die, to find out I hadn’t lived.” So – I thought about what I wanted to be sure to have “done” “been” “experienced” “felt” – then I spelled it out — & am trying to be “deliberate” now!
~ I try not to judge people that my co-workers don’t like. ~ Mandalena
~ I have changed my life to take care of my mother who has dementia, 24 hours a day. ~ Karen
~ Listen to the birds near – and far away – learn their language – teach this to children & sow seeds for the joy of stillness, quiet, meditation for the Thoreaus yet to come … ~ Carolina
~ I believe Henry D. would smile just knowing how much he influenced my generation. ~ Bob
~ Writing a book to bring awareness to the tragedies of war I experienced as a woman & the simplistic travel around the world I needed to do to get my spirit back & how to enjoy nature & other cultures. Respect the Earth.
~ We sold our home & bought a trailer to see the world. To live deliberately takes courage. To say no to stuff & possessions is freeing.
~ Live in the moment, and be as happy as you can be. Surround yourself with people who embrace sanity.
How have YOU chosen to live deliberately?
To see more visitor responses, see our previous compilations:
“…the thonder gan romblen in the Heven with that gristly steven, that Chaucer tells of – (the gods must be proud with such forked flashes and such artillery to rout a poor unarmed fisherman…” Thoreau, Journal, August 23rd 1845
Is there a better summer-storm line than Chaucer’s above? Thonder really does romble. Anyway, I’ve returned to my reading of Henry Thoreau’s first summer at Walden and its resonances with our current summer. Aging August brings me to Thoreau’s thunder-precipitated meeting with John Field, the central episode of what would become the Baker Farm chapter of his book.
Thoreau observes no niceties when describing Field (“An Honest hard working – but shiftless man plainly was John Field) and his wife (with round greasy face and bare breast – still thinking to improve her condition one day) and “many children from the broad faced boy that ran by his father’s side to escape the rain to the wrinkled & Sybil like – crone-like infant, not knowing whether to take the part of age or infancy…” Even as they give him shelter.
In exchange, however, Thoreau does offer them advice, amplified by the time he writes the episode into the published version of Walden: “I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent to such a ruin as his commonly amounts to…”
Here, after all, is one of the desperate masses for whom Thoreau intends his life and book as example; here is a test case: “If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a huckle-berrying…” But the test does not go well: “John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms akimbo…”
The thundershower ends and Thoreau sets off, retreats, really: “As I was leaving the Irishman’s roof after the rain, bending my steps again to the pond, my haste to catch pickerel, wading in retired meadows, in sloughs and bog-holes, in forlorn and savage places, appeared for an instant trivial to me who had been sent to school and college…”
Here is crisis, I think, of a sort familiar to us all. Just what am I doing with whatever I’ve been given (it is, we recall from Walden’s first chapter, “difficult to begin without borrowing,”) the tools of school in this instance? All this walking and mucking about, he seems to say, to what purpose?
Thoreau’s answer is lyrical and famous. And, for me, only partially convincing. Still, it is hard not to feel the momentum of that answer; it gathers you in: “but as I ran down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder, and some faint tinkling sound borne to my ear through the cleansed air, from I know not what quarter, my Good Genius seemed to say, – Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, – farther and wider, – and rest thee by many brooks and heart-sides without misgiving…Grow wild according to thy nature.”
The biblical allusions and language underscore the sacred nature of this answer conjured by “my Good Genius.” The “faint tinkling sounds” seem transcendent chimes.
Still, I wonder what you make of this meeting in the Baker Farm chapter and how its questions fit in your lives?
Other note, related (perhaps) in the way it appeared to me when I was not “at work”: a hummingbird moth, humming and hovering in the bee balm – it looked like an infant hummingbird, a third the size of the usual, except…that it had antennae over half an inch long. Antennae, I thought and wondered? It gave the “bird” a goofy sort of Saturday Night Live retro look. Still, it hovered over the flowers gracefully, dipped its long “nose” in tastefully. Clearly a “bird” with flair…then, later after a search of images, a bug (which put me in mind of “the strong and beautiful bug” that appears at Walden’s end). “What beautiful and winged life.”
Later, two pileated woodpeckers (a pair?) only 10 feet away (briefly, of course, as they flew up and off issuing their wild laughter).
“…this time we chose the right hand or highest peak – and soon my companions were lost to my sight behind the ver retreating mountain ridge over huge rocks loosely poised I climbed a mile or more – still edging toward the clouds…” Thoreau, Journal – Fall 1846
Thoreau’s summer of ‘46 was filled with mountains; his journal is rife with them – New Hampshire’s high peaks and Maine’s wild ones. In late summer, Thoreau was drawn north to the big woods and uplands of Maine. His second summer at Walden had brought both heat and, I’m guessing, a little flattening of both experience and “experiment.” Some nord-walking must have seemed just the restorative ticket.
Traveling counter-direction to Thoreau, but just as interested in restorative walking, I recently drove south from Maine. In Connecticut on a family visit, I rose early on an August day and, after a quick trip to a coffee shop, laced on my shoes. It was one of those morning’s where the cool air promises September, even as the sun announces an August intent. I figured a few hours of trail-time in those early hours would set up the rest of my day.
And so I drove a few miles to a favorite state park and turned into a three-car parking indent striated with tree roots. Sleeping Giant State Park runs about three miles on an west-east axis, and that axis follows the contours of a supposedly recumbent giant, whose various prominences – hip, knee, shoulder – rise some 500 feet above the valley below.
The Giant, tree-softened in sleepy profile when seen from a distance, is hard-boned up close. Along its steepnesses the trails are rock studded with the slough of ridges, and those fractured trap-rock stones are sharp-angled rather than water-smoothed geometries. And along its south-facing aspect, the Giant’s central body is shot also with hundred-foot cliffs; because we are some miles north of the long final moraine that is Long Island, I wonder if those cliffs are where the recent glacier tore chunks of Giant away and carried them south.
The Giant’s other notables are trees – in places oaks, maples, beeches and ashes soar to a canopy so high and complete that there’s almost no understory; in other spots groves of laurels rise like twisting smoke to 20 or 25 feet, where they spread leafily out.
Then there are the sightings: as I ran the broad gravel Tower Road up to the 739-foot high point, two twenty-somethings with buzzed, orange-tinged hair warned me that they’d just seen a copperhead on the path and that thought juiced the day with a little added wonder. Yes, I thought, we are along the northern fringe of copperhead range; yes that’s possible, even though it is improbable (their mohawks undercut somewhat their naturalist creds). “That’s so cool,” I said and kept on uphill, scanning now for coppery movement. I’m not sure what response they were after or expected, but my enthusiasm for the snake didn’t seem a match for it. “Silver hairs running up hills,” their expressions seemed to say. “What to make of them?”
The best Giant loop – run first some years back after a dousing rain that left rivulets on the trails and drops sparkling in the trees – warms up along the lower perimeter of the park and then links two trails that traverse its flanks, running first west to east and then east to west. At its midpoint, this route adds the spike of running up the 600-foot climb to the prominence of the Giant’s left hip (with its rumored copperheads). My trails are, as are all trails on the Giant, color coded, the north flank’s marked by violet triangles, the south’s by yellow, and as I run I often follow the contours with the land sloping up above and away below my intermediate mountainscape.
Being in mid-Giant is the perfect level for focusing on my feet and not on what’s out or up there, the views and speculations that lift the head and bring on stumbles. Here, even – no, especially – amid the jumbled stone, I find rhythm; I step step step along through the big trees and splashed lime-colored light, along through the tumble of the Giant’s reclining body. And as we do wherever we run, I step step step into a country of myth.
Short summary of Giant myth: we come from the sea. And from the south, from New Haven’s harbor, the west-east traprock ridge some 10 miles inland looks like a recumbent being; that view from the coast gave rise to the Giant’s name. But the story returns as many do to those who went over this landscape for thousands of years before us. The New Haven area’s Quinnipiac Indians had a storied geography and a primary relationship with the long fluency of the Connecticut River. It seems also that their land was peopled by walking mountains, in particular one Hobbomock, who was ill-tempered as big beings tend to be. Anyway, Hobbomock conceived of a torment the locals wouldn’t forget; he set out to divert the huge nearby river, thereby disrupting the Quinnipiac’s way of life.
And in answer to their prayers and sacrifices, Hobbomock was finally quieted, given to sleep, where now he offers trails and little glens to those who would see the world at our feet.
Sometimes, the mythic brings us also back to the present.
Yo, look, Henry: it’s a copperhead!
It was unplanned, but over these July days, some 170 years after his move to Walden, I’ve fallen in with Henry and his stretched summer of ’45. Later, it would become part of Walden’s endless (nearly) summer, lasting for more than half the book before fall’s abrupt, punctuating chill arrived. But now, in his raw journal pages and in the mild light that forgets to dwindle each evening, I keep hearing susurration, summer’s saying, “ssssshhhure it’s okay to idle, maybe turn the page…maybe not.”
On or about July 16th that year, Alek Therien, who would become the woodchopper (and conundrum – is he as simple as one of his posts, or as wise as Homer?) in Walden, visits Thoreau, and, even in these unguarded pages, he’s unsure of what to make of his blunt guest. Therien offers advice on hoeing beans – wait ’til the dew dries – which Thoreau doesn’t credit, and he wants to be read to, which invites a visit from Homer himself.
“And now,” Thoreau writes, “I must read to him while he holds the book – Achilles’ reproof to Patrocles on his sad countenance
‘Why are you in tears, – Patrocles? Like a young child (girl) &c. &c
Or have you only heard some news from Phthia?”
And on this question I pause. Phthia is Achilles’ and Patrocles’ home town, and they are far away at Troy. What might be happening when they are so far from home? Might their fathers be ill, or have died? Might invaders have appeared, just as they the Greeks have at Troy?
It seems significant that Achilles appears here near the inception of Thoreau’s Walden years. He will become a recurring reference in Thoreau’s book, a heroic ideal that casts light on Thoreau’s own purpose at Walden, where, following the archetype, he has set out to locate some secret, some sense of how to live, which he will bring back with him when he returns to town.
Okay, you may say, I know that.
But what has me falling in with Henry Thoreau these days is the implied wondering about the world he has left, the everyday Concord and its dusty roads and clanking cutlery. For me, summer creates the same sense of remove as the shift to Walden. Even when I don’t leave town, I leave its routine, its minute-by-minute machinations.
Instead I live in stretched time’s aforementioned Ss and the way a day’s light goes buttery in the near evening when corn and tomatoes and greens that absorbed that light even this morning form the table’s fare.
And sometimes the question rises: what is happening back in the little town of the everyday? Will I return? Who will be waiting?
For now, however, I am happy to be here, only perhaps an imagined mile or so out of that town, it’s true, but emphatically elsewhere. As was Henry Thoreau when he wrote from beyond Concord of a similar present on the 14th of July in 1845:
Here I know I am in good company – here is the world its centre and metropolis, and all the palms of Asia – and the laurels of Greece – and the first of the Arctic Zones incline thither.
“[Berrying] is a sort of sacrament, a communion – the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat.” Thoreau, Wild Fruits
In many instances and groves, I find myself aligned with Henry Thoreau. But, when it comes to canines, we part ways. For Thoreau, dogs were all Boses and Treys, indistinguishable animals who coursed through the woods, running game and baying monotonously. Often, one suspects, they were cast as stand-ins for their human hunter companions – keen on one thing only, missing the heaven through which they ran.
For me, not so much. Instead, I see dogs as spirit animals, who arrive, often unbidden, at both usual and gravid moments.
The other day was my first of our berry season. For a few days prior, I’d seen bumps of blue in the bushes that line the paths of our Commons, and I knew the seemingly sudden ripening of blueberries was on us. Although our backyard high bush berries are still green, their ground-hugging cousins have taken in the ground’s added warmth and become themselves.
There are few times I find more meditative and self-completing than a stretch of picking berries on a warm afternoon. My eye finds blue behind and beneath the leaves, and as I pick, I get picky – I want what I call “fat-berries,” the sun-sugared ones as big as your pinkie’s fingernail. They are not the something-infused, suspect colossi you find in the supermarket, shipped north in all seasons. These delicate berries are shipped nowhere, except across the grove by birds, or combed into a happy maw by the bear I always imagine just out of sight.
Anyway, accompanied by overlapping songs from the wood thrush, I was settled into my picking, when I heard brush rustling nearby. I looked up and through it came a yellow lab’s head, replete with the canine smile of discovery usual when they uncover a hidden human. Labs are not shy dogs, and she came right to me, nudged my right hand as prompt for affection, and sat down to receive. Which she did. A minute passed, and I patted on.
Then, slowly, a figure drew near on the path 100 feet away; the lab’s human companion (HC in dog literature) was scanning the woods. “Ah,” she said spotting us. “There you are. You’ve found another HC.” The lab, extracting every second of affection, stayed until summoned. Then, she bounded off in pursuit of a tossed ball.
Pause over (I resist, as Thoreau might not have, the pun), I looked down again, and the sky-blue winking gathered me back into the berries. A quart or so later, I straightened and figured it was time to walk home. I marked this patch – only partially picked – on my mental map and set out. First berries, wood thrush songs, a dog’s visit – if I could whistle, I would have.
There is one thing in this piece on which Henry Thoreau and I agree: berries, blue and huckle, are the very spirit of summer, which carries in it (in Walden and elsewhere) the spirit of independence and self-realization. And, just as the yellow lab followed her nose to me, I follow mine to these berries; we are both summer animals.
By Corinne H. Smith
July 11, 2015, 6:30 a.m. North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts.
I was due at Walden Pond at 7 a.m. to lead the annual silent Memorial Walk during The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering. I had fifteen minutes to spare before I had to pick up a fellow walker at her hotel. So I headed over to my favorite place in the area: the North Bridge.
Thankfully, the hour was too early for tourists. And the timing must have been off for joggers or dog-walkers too, because I had the place blissfully to myself. Or, I should clarify: I was alone, only as far as fellow humans were concerned. Once I tiptoed to the crest of the bridge, I was instead surrounded by birdsong.
The usual little brown chatterers were perched in the tall trees by the riverbanks. A catbird mewed from the thicket. A pair of red-wing blackbirds chased each other through the marsh on the opposite shore. Pigeons cooed from underneath the bridge boards. Every few seconds one of the pigeons would whappity-whap-whap to one of the other wooden posts below.
As I had hoped, the clear and cloudless sky made for a beautiful scene. My favorite scene. One so full of peace that it confounded me to think that the Revolution started here with weapons, confusion, gunshot, injury, and loss of life.
It was at this hour on the morning of April 19, 1775, that the colonial minutemen gathered in anticipation on the other side of the bridge. The red-coated soldiers would soon arrive in Concord from Boston, after having exchanged shots with the minutemen lining the road in Lexington. The paths of the two groups would cross here in about three hours. What happened would eventually be described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Had the birds been singing on that morning, too?
I looked downriver, to the right. The Concord was beautiful. I looked upriver and toward the Old Manse boathouse, to the left. Suddenly I realized that a heron was fishing along the far shoreline, just beyond a bit of rising mist. I hadn’t noticed it before. I had had too much history on my mind.
Still, the birds sang, all around me. After a quick look around to make sure there were no further witnesses, I decided to join them. I chose the chorus from the John Denver song “Summer,” which I thought was one of the most transcendental sets of lyrics he ever wrote:
“And oh, I love the life within me,
I feel a part of everything I see.
And oh, I love the life around me,
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.”
Most singing bridges come with decks of metal grates that make automobile tires “sing” when they travel across them. This morning I changed the definition to include this other kind of singing: vocal, not physical. I sang the chorus several times, getting louder with each one. The heron must not have been a John Denver fan. When I looked back to the far shore, he was gone.
Still, I have a sense for what Henry David Thoreau may have thought if he’d been able to look down from this “rude bridge” and see the reflection of the morning sky in the Concord water:
“Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads.”
Birthday one at the pond: Henry Thoreau is 27 and an eight-day resident of Walden. His journal that year offers no record of revelry on the 12th, no record, in fact, of anything. But one suspects a bit of a celebratory mood or moment in the aftermath of his 7/4 move that would become a rebirthing of self. July’s elastic light and Walden’s cool waters must have made this birthday feel expansive.
One imagines Henry Thoreau at the door of his cabin looking, perhaps, at a little early fog on the pond. Like our fog this morning. Where shall I walk today? When? Perhaps first I’ll watch the sidle of early light as the sun climbs the back of Pine Hill; perhaps this will be the morning later caught so clearly in Walden, where Thoreau is “rapt in a revery amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness” until noon. O, the possibilities.
Henry Thoreau has awoken to no one, to the empty slate of this day; he will be its script. And he will be also its writer, later to become our writer, whose words will lead to a million Waldens. That’s quite a (re)birthday present.
Afternote: Thoreau’s journal picks up again 170 years ago today, on the 14th. It’s a rainy morning and he has this to say: “What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man…While I enjoy the sweet friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. This rain which is now watering my beans, and keeping me in the house waters me too.”
By Corinne H. Smith
“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … But sometimes it happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” ~ Thoreau, “Walking”
I ate too much. I was staying at a friend’s place. We went out to dinner, we had a great conversation, and I ate too much. As she drove us back, I told her I would have to go for a walk to work off dinner; otherwise, my clothes wouldn’t fit me the next day. So she stopped the car at an athletic field a few blocks from her house. She recommended that I walk around it. I got out and headed down the path. She wished me well and turned toward home.
According to a sign I passed as I was walking, this series of fields totaled 44 acres. They were edged by large trees. Sugar maples, mostly; with some pines, locusts and silver maples added in. I trudged along their outskirts at first, feeling heavy. I was loaded down with food (which had been delicious, by the way). But I was also replaying parts of our conversation in my head. My friend and I had been tossing around ideas for a few future projects. Many possibilities surfaced at the dinner table. Saying them out loud triggered more, and I had written them down. As I now put one foot in front of the other, I began to create a mental to-do list to follow up on our plans. If Henry Thoreau had been beside me and had known what I was up to, he would have admonished me for being out of my senses. I wasn’t paying attention to the nature around me.
Halfway around, I picked up a pine cone. I tossed it back and forth from one hand to another, matching this action with the rhythm of my pace. The cone’s scales were prickly. Each one was capped by a sharp point. They didn’t exactly hurt my fingers, but I sure noticed they were there. Not knowing where the needles would land next was something that kept me aware of myself and kept me moving forward, as the sun kept dropping a bit lower in the western sky.
I began to hear a few birds in the trees. A cardinal was perched in one. Several chickadees called from another. A mourning dove echoed its slow mellow tones, from farther away. I was the only human circling the fields, but other creatures were here, too. I saw some of them flying, or landing in the fields, looking for dessert.
As I passed a typical New England stone wall, my gaze followed the straight line of its leveled-off top. I stopped at a lump. A brown and black-lined lump, with eyes. A chipmunk! I hadn’t seen one in a good, long while. It looked at me, and I talked to it. It tolerated this interchange for a few seconds, then it leapt into a crevice and peeked out at me, blinking. I talked to it again, and kept on walking. A gray squirrel was bounding along the other end of the wall, under an oak tree. He may have been hunting old acorns or something else. He blended in so well with the wall and the dusk, that I couldn’t tell what he was doing.
When I got to my starting point, I decided to keep on going. I was still stuffed. The weather was nice. The trees were nice. Why not make another round?
The pine cone still popped its needles into my hands. I saw little birds I couldn’t identify, scrutinizing the dirt. When I reached the stone wall, I saw another chipmunk in another spot. Or maybe it was the same one I’d seen before. This time, I could talk to it a bit longer before it darted between the stones. What a cutie! The gray squirrel was still at the other end of the wall, doing whatever he was doing. Since this part of the block was wooded and shady, I couldn’t see him well.
When I reached the starting point again, I knew I could handle a third time around. A few minutes into this decision, I spied something light brown on the ground. A nest! A small one, at that. I looked up at the tree it had fallen out of. I couldn’t tell where it had come from. It was tiny and perfect and fit completely on just my fingers. Who had built it? Where were they now? And where were the little ones that the nest had been built for? It was beautiful. It was soft and intricately woven. I picked it up and carried it along. It made a good companion to the prickly pine cone. My real question to myself was: Why had it taken me three times past this place to see it?
When I reached the stone wall for the third time, I saw the chipmunk – or another one – engrossed in eating something dark. I talked to it, and it was too involved to consider me a threat. It stayed put and continued gnawing. The gray squirrel was still concerned with squirrel business. I would never know what he was up to. I picked up two plastic bottles that someone had dropped or tossed out of a car. I had passed them twice. Now they would be recycled.
Soon enough I walked into the front door of my friend’s house. She and her husband were sitting in the living room. I told them that I had done three laps around the fields. “That’s three miles!” my friend said. Really? It hadn’t felt that long.
“And look what I found!” I said. I showed them the tiny nest. They admired it as much as I had. I put it and the pine cone next to my laptop for inspiration.
I had walked three miles. I felt better and lighter. I hadn’t solved any of the world’s major problems – or even any of my own. But I had picked up four things to bring back home. I had eventually paid more attention to nature than to my business concerns. So in the end, Mr. Thoreau may have approved of my saunter. The treasures I had found also reminded me of a quote by another great philosopher, the Native American named Black Elk: “The power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”
As noted in our previous post, summer’s central month always makes me think of Henry Thoreau settling into his “experiment” at Walden. There must have been a pinch-me feeling to awakening pondside to the birdsong and early light.
I often wonder what Henry Thoreau would make of our era-of-the-selfie. We know from the outset (page one) of Walden, Thoreau was no stranger to himself, to the sort of self-examination that’s needed to figure out how to live. He warns us of his upcoming centrality in his book with these words: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well. I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
But the picture of him that forms as one reads is not a face smiling for his own camera; rather it’s more of praise song for life’s particular possibilities and gifts, as lived by one person with an inclination for the universal.
Thoreau goes on to offer requirement: “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life…some such account as he would send to a kindred from a distant land.”
Here then, in that and summer’s spirit, are a few postcards from my distant land to something other than my face. If I were to take a selfie, it would be of my legs, to be used as illustration for a card of thanks.
Postcard Paeans (to My Legs)
Today I propose
an amble, a walk, a
run; today let’s be
away. Let’s lope
to the e
that joins us,
let’s match motion
with its e,
and let’s fete e’s
very way across
Bear with me or simply
bear me up this little
rise I can’t quite see
over. Every day
I ask, every day
of me that
And there’s this: hope
that the strung
Two years, two months, two days.
Henry Thoreau was wary of symbols
thoughts and things that go two
by two into the ark of the mind.
And when he took time off, absconded
with it to the pond on July 4th,
1845, he scoffed at those who saw
declaration of independence, in truth
he might have said, I am more
dependent than ever, on this pond
on this earth, on these feet, not
to mention the sky that shines
in the water, a medium really
for seeing up and down, for
seeing two ways at once, a unity
upon which I row my boat and
in which I bathe every day.
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.”