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”
Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation…If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already. Thoreau, Journal 10/15/59
I picked yesterday to be away. I packed enough into the thin needle of my boat and pointed out, at least at first, at the horizon and the uncertain island that appears to slump in that direction. Stroke by stroke , I drew nearer; gradually the island grew. Its tall pines distinguished themselves, its wind-shorn seaside cliff became wrinkled with nearness. I was, I reflected, getting there, even as “there” kept receding toward the horizon.
Once at Ragged Island, I made my way to Mark, which marked also the turn to the north and away from the edge, and on toward Flag (another sort of marker), where I pointed west again, intent of travel’s circle. I pulled over at the Elm Islands, two wrists of rock from the submerged sea-giant; the Elms belong to the birds and, of course, to the sea. A lone tree centers the larger of the two Elms, and it is an elm, brought these two miles offshore by human hand. The local forester who made this transplant did so in honor of his father, who loved trees, elms especially. And so far, the disease that’s after our mainland elms hasn’t crossed the water; it is a hopeful tree.
Stopping at the Elms is free, and, as I drank my water and munched my oats, I was grateful to whatever power has kept it so.
Perhaps that gratitude was precursor to some news that came my way when I returned to the screens and pings of the hurried world. There in local headlines was announcement of a national monument near Katahdin (which, by the way, has no Mount before it – Katahdin means greatest mountain in the Penobscot language, and so, no need for the English repeat). Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an 87,500-acre seed of preserved land to complement Percival Baxter’s remarkable gift of 200,000 acres that form Baxter Park. Roxanne Quimby’s gift – made possible, I suppose, by the labor of millions of Burt’s bees – matches Thoreau’s ’59 advice and our best instincts at a time when appeal after appeal is being made to our worst. It is a seed of wild happiness.
Or, in fitting with my day just floated, a land enough apart for a tree to grow.
“One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix Nebulosa (now Strix Varia)) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I was standing within a rod of him…and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings of unsuspected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them.” Thoreau, Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.
An hour or so into some trail time on a little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid the glacial gifts of angled rock. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at “getting there,” and so, on a good day with a good mind, the ten-foot puzzle before you is all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm that is pure pleasure.
I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-5 bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings – broad wings – and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance; then, I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.
Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, “ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground – OWL!
At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring – somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body – and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind – middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.
I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. He’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me; well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.
After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on his mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We all moved on.
Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within 6 miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. Welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.
My mind, like many, like Henry Thoreau’s, is drawn by symmetry, and so the date 8/8 seemed cast as a lure. It was, as is often true in this column, morning, time of coffee and a little reading (see below) and backyard gazing. And, as I idled, the day seemed the one where the month had tipped, begun its sidle to September.
I intuited this in part because the traffic at the blueberry flughafen, where for these weeks our backyard birds, led by catbird and cardinal, have sought their berries, had dropped off. It had gone from being a metropolitan fly-in to a sleepy regional airport, with its mechanic napping in his shaded chair.
And, where just days ago, I could see clustered rounds of blue, a promise of berries, now I could see only a sparse dotting of green, summer’s leftovers. Enough, to be sure, to keep the catbird coming and going, but that morning s/he was the only flier.
This stretch days sometimes feels like a slow inbreath, before the rush of fall comes on, before school gathers in the summer-dreamy children, before the winds arrive in earnest. I am deep in August, but always aware that what’s next is stirring nearby.
And so I smiled especially at what my morning readings – of book and berry bush – brought me to. Here’s the opening stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem 316, written some time in the Thoreau-familiar year of 1862:
The Wind didn’t come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor joggle a Hat —
He’s a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —
These lines made me think of September and Thoreau simultaneously — the wind and the word, transitive, yes, but I can “Rely on that —“ arriving all the way from 1862.
August 9 – Wednesday. — to Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing. Thoreau, Journal, 1854
This morning’s poem is Ode to Enchanted Light, one of Pablo Neruda’s poems to the usual, or to the extraordinary everyday. And, for me, it must be in translation. Still, its long vertical line invites me forward; the pages pass rapidly, satisfying the little workman inside me, who likes to get things done.
But, perhaps to the workman’s chagrin, my eyes and mind keep snagging on apt phrases, on insights, and then, I slow, often lay the book back and gaze out into the early light of the backlit yard. A mourning dove wings down and begins hunting seeds, which, in this season, seem numerous; then, the bird stops, appears to contemplate something and pecks down, lifting then a stalk with a dead, brown clover flower on it. The dove lifts it up and down, looking like a pump handle after the morning’s water. “What’s this?,” it seems to ask; then it struts a little – such a fine find; I am the bird.
Like reader-me, the dove gives up the task of finding seeds, of getting on with it, and seems fascinated with the stalk and its browned flower. It struts some more, turning as if to show its prize in all angles and lights. I become convinced – the dove is the bird. My little workman frowns.
Then, suddenly, the dove arrows off. It is swift and gone, though still holding tight its brown flower. I am about to read a next poem, when today’s date flashes in my mind – 8/9; ah, it is pub-day: Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, is 162 years into its world tour, and it shows no signs of flagging. I go to the bookshelf and pick a copy from the line. It has a brown cover; I hold it aloft – my brown flower discovery. I check its angles in the morning light. I resolve to go “to the woods.” Then, I arrow off into the day.
“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” Thoreau, Journal, 12/11/55. Note: Though this lead-in entry from Thoreau’s Journal comes from the other side of the year, it’s phrasing seems perfect for what I’m seeing now. Just so with Henry, I think – he could see all the way to summer even on the shortest of days.
Early August: my daily negotiation with the squirrels and birds continues. From the deck of the breakfast table, I watch the blueberry bushes. Last month they looked as if they bore hundreds of little white candles to summer’s birthday; now, they offer a slow genuflection as their green-going-purple berries swell a bit each day and pull their branches down. It looks to be another good year. Albeit a contested one.
Here, for one, is a gray squirrel. He is well fed, amply rounded in this season of abundance, and he has an eye on my berries. A few don’t bother me, but if he picks to pack that rounded belly full, I will rise from my chair, open the window and hiss/bark at him – some hybrid threat intended to make me sound like trouble.
A few minutes ago, on of Henry Thoreau’s “striped squirrels,” known to us as chipmunks, emerged from beneath a branch facing me. “What a fat face you have,” I might have said if I were in nursery-rhyme frame of mind. Instead, I gawked and then began calculating: that must be at least four berries per cheek to get such a bulge. The chipmunk made for the yew bush in looping hops, and perhaps I imagined that his heavy head brought him down from each hop a little faster, but I don’ think so.
No-picking peace resumes. But only for a minute. Then, the catbird returns. He or she is a choosy sort, given sometimes to plucking a berry, rolling it in beak, and then…gasp…flicking it away over winged shoulder before seizing another. Scandalized then, I half-rise from my chair.
But this time, the catbird has junior in tow, and, as I watch, adult-C gives junior-C a berry tutorial. First she – let’s call our adult the mother of our backyard trio – hops 360 degrees around junior, getting, I suppose, his attention. Teachers will recognize this behavior. Then, with junior focused, she leaps/flies up a foot and nabs a berry from a low branch, settles back by junior and shows him the berry…which she then eats. Good bird.
Junior hops a bit and then waited. Where’s mine his head-tilt seems to say…mine, and mine and mine…it’s always appeared. In answer, the lesson gets repeated, even mama swallowing the plucked berry. Really? Junior seems to say. But then in somewhat ungainly imitation, he leaps at a berry…and misses. Ah, I think, it does take teaching and learning; even catbirds aren’t berry-adepts. The whole he’s-a-natural argument often hides the natural’s teachers, but there she is.
The lesson goes on, and mama-catbird must be working up a hunger with all her hopping because she eats more berries than I’ve ever witnessed. Finally, Junior nabs one.
Even I fluff my feathers with pride. It takes a whole berry-bush to raise a catbird.
by Deborah Bier
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Gardening deliberately is how we manage the 1878 Kitchen Garden at Thoreau Farm, the birth house of Henry David Thoreau.
Such gardening is also one way to live deliberately and to become more present to all that is unfolding within and around our garden. A garden is a place of constant change, and, If we are conscious and aware of its nuances, we can be more responsive to its needs. Here at the birthplace, we explore all garden choices carefully, making decisions reflective of our deepest values and principals. I do not follow any single practice or school of gardening, no pre-set protocols. Instead, through study and experience, I’ve equipped myself with a wide variety of approaches, using the each one to meet the challenge of the moment. I rely strongly upon observation and experimentation, and, in turn, the garden regularly reminds me to be open and aware, present to the moment.
Thoreau Farm’s garden is entirely individual – it will never be exactly replicated anywhere else, not even in the same spot from one year to the next. And so, no famous book, gardener, farmer or horticulturist can know what to do with this kitchen garden better than those who tend and visit it often.
Like any type of deliberation, gardening deliberately is the opposite of living on “autopilot.” It is responsiveness, not knee-jerk reaction. It involves being fully alive to the experience, not being distracted, numb or deadened. The sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes of the garden … the patterns and colors, the scent of the leaves, the feel of the wind – these are a source of much of my joy as I work here.
“The true cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life that is required to be exchanged for it.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden
And so I ask: Is “the amount of life required to be exchanged” for these garden tasks really worth their cost in time, energy, money, and opportunity? And from the sunflowers, from the squash, I hear answer – “Yes, they say. Yes.”
What is truly the most important task in the garden today? What is really not crucial, or even a waste of time? How much is on the list because it’s what we think must be done – because that is what we have been told to do by others?
Such deliberation almost always leads to simplifying, throwing out some hallowed methods in favor of ones that more closely mimic the processes we discover. In doing so, we have ended up with what we think are some very effective gardening methods that also are a lot less time consuming and exhausting.
Let me give you an example of deliberate laziness we’re practicing during this nearly rainless and hot summer. Wild animals are desperate for water. Baby ground hogs and rabbits amazingly fit between our one-by-four-inch fence wires, and have eaten all of our beans and brassicas down to nothingness.
We could spend a lot of time and energy replanting multiple times, and go to all kinds of extreme measures to exclude, trap, or kill these animals. But we realize humans do not depend upon these particular crops to survive, and that replantings will end up being eaten by the next litter of baby rabbits (rabbits produce up to three litters per year; woodchucks, just one). We could also get very upset and angry at the animals, declaring war on them. But that, too, is likely a waste precious human resources.
So we are instead choosing to be happy with the crops we have that are growing well, despite the weather. We’ve chosen instead to exercise our “citizen scientist” muscles and learn from observing the garden under these conditions. Now we’re noticing what crops thrive best in the dry heat, and which are struggling. We’re also seeing which parts of the garden are doing better than others due to variations in soil quality, identifying areas we should improve this year or next. This is all important to learn as more extreme weather patterns become the norm, and gardeners need to adapt to varying unexpected conditions.
There are as many trends in gardening as there are other here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions. There are also sound gardening practices that become overblown into rigid, unbending systems with dozens of rules that adherents demand be followed exactly. You must, you should… you cannot, you must not. Adhering to so many pre-set rules is not being responsive to your garden, your conditions, your abilities. Too many rules can actually create failure, not success, because their requirements are often complex, and there are too many to follow dependably. Such complexity also risks feelings of failure and anxiety in the gardener, which intrude on the joy of putting hands into warm, fragrant soil. How often do we end up feeling that we can toil all day and never get everything done, much less done correctly or well? Such work is not gardening deliberately, though it is a form of gardening.
It turns out that deliberate laziness was deeply intertwined with Henry Thoreau’s life and philosophy, though he never used the term. He wrote that he became rich by intentionally reducing his wants. By living simply, he determined he could meet all his needs by working a mere six weeks a year. In 19th century American terms, he was considered extremely lazy. In 21st century terms, unlike so many of us, Henry was not too busy to pursue his self-created life path. Only six weeks of work annually – think about the richness of life you could experience in 46 work-free weeks every year!
Reading about kitchen gardens in the 19th century suggests they were not the place for laziness, deliberate or otherwise. Mostly tended by women who toiled endlessly, these kitchen gardens leave me utterly depressed and discouraged. But by applying the standard of deliberate laziness to Thoreau Farm’s kitchen garden we’ve updated the form to one that is far easier for 21st century denizens to embrace.
Though a planned-for trip fell through, a few smaller adventures took its place, and one summer dusk, I found myself sitting in the back of an old, tin-walled church that had become what it once was, a community center in Deer Isle, Maine. The small building was full, its hardwood pews chocked with the fire-marshal-approved 5 people per, though I’m guessing that we now average more girth than the 5-somes that sat there 100 years ago. Until the windows were opened the air was fuzzy with heat. Our small cohort had gathered to hear from Maine’s new poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum. Stu, as islanders called him, would read a few poems and talk some about writing and creativity – “What’s the engine for that life?” asked the flyers posted around town, where most engines power lobster boats or pick-ups.
Kestenbaum began with three poems, and, with their clear narratives, they made easy listening, by which I mean the poems could be followed, not that they were facile. Then, in conversation with another poet, he began to talk about sustaining writing over time and amid other work – poetry may be a calling, but it isn’t often fiscally-sustaining work. Asked about his “deal” with the state for his 5-year laureate’s term, Kestenbaum said he looked forward to being “waved through the tolls on the turnpike.” Compensation clearly would come as something other than money.
“I’ve heard that reading 100 poems for every one you write is a good ratio,” he said, and then he outlined a morning where he read poems to begin his day, prime his mind. Tucked into my rear pew, I resolved – for the xth time – to go and do likewise, to read from what Robert Bly once called “News of the Universe” instead of the news websites that excite all the wrong sectors of my mind.
And so on this late summer morning, when, a month-plus past solstice, I note that sun’s shifted slightly lower in the pines, I open Take Heart, an anthology of Maine poems put together by Kestenbaum’s predecessor, Wesley McNair. And, on page 146 (I dip and read at random), I find this poem by Robert M. Chute:
I’ve never found an arrowhead,
one flinty chip of history.
Young Thoreau, they said, if he walked by
some farmer’s fresh-plowed field could just
stoop down and pick one up. As if
the spirit that shaped them drew them
up to his attention. Stoney bread crumbs
no birds will eat, these points and flakes
led him from the town into the
saving woods and wilderness which might
save us all. His faith led him onto find
what he believed. We find,
he said, what we are prepared to see.
This seems just the way to begin the day.
Furnishing Walden a chair a bed a desk The desk came first in 1838 as it became apparent that the hours afoot would be brought here where they could be inked into lines that would circumscribe worlds - local paths, thickets, swamps, birds, insects, plants, the odd groundhog - all these ligaments and lineaments, a sort of puritan golem who would stir drafts later and one by one readers would walk out and be saved for a day and the next day each would saunter out again along those lines and every so often one would not return. He saw so far forward, you wonder if he lived in his world, but then you see him sprawled on the young ice inching out, reading the worm-trail of history in the mud the whole lens of coming winter flexing beneath him and you know from the seep of cold that he was there, and you know now know how you should live. You push back the chair and rock for a moment on the rockers he attached to allow for just this and you turn like a leaf in fall contemplative; it is, this walking motion, the birth of thought its pod opening like last year’s milkweed, its heart-shaped seeds suspended beneath the wisp of white sail as they float forth. All night long on the modified Chinese sedan that is your bed, its rattan hand holding you up, you dream and the small night animals in this patch of borrowed woodland say that you sleep and awaken everywhere at home.
…even as the eagle drives her young at last from the neighborhood of her eyrie, — for their own good, since there is not food enough there for all…Thoreau, Journal, 3/22/61
As we draw near these duck-broods, a conversational cluck-talk suddenly morphs into squawking concern – every duck’s talking at once, and they have begun to hurry this way and that. Are we cause? In our three small boats do we appear to be duck-doom? Ah, no…something else is near.
Also amply fed in this season of plenty, an eagle wheels above the now-panicked covey of ducks, who – it must be said – have had a prolific breeding season. There may be 10 adult ducks in this flotilla 50 or so, and seconds ago one of them has set up the alarm, but now much of the cacophony rises from fuzzy brown ducklings, who seem suddenly to have adopted the random movements of a moth when a bat flies near. The orderly little files of ducks that had been paddling serenely out of our boats’ path have become a hurried scatter of flurried (flightless) wings and webbed feet scratching for water-traction.
The eagle, some twenty feet off the deck, nears, and wherever it veers, 20 ducks dive. Little explosions of spray show where they’ve gone under; their disappearances are audible, like so many small stones raining down. Now, the eagle flares wings, then drops, talons extended, splashing down like an off-kilter parachute, perhaps right atop one of the swimming brown streaks. But it is a mostly graceless attempt, followed by a labored rowing of wings on the water to get – finally, with empty claws – airborne again. All this work, the eagle’s affect seems to say. But once soaring again, the bird’s menace returns, eliciting more squawked protest and more darting in all directions.
After a minute of circling, the eagle appears to tire and wings off to perch in a white pine hundreds of yards away; once there, he vanishes from our sight, and we look back to the ducks, who have begun to gather again into their usual softly chuckling conversations. Then – ALARUM! a gabble of cluck-squawks! Who spotted the eagle is unclear, but well before he arrives to search again in circles for a slow duck, fowl consternation rises and the webbed feet flurry. There must be a lookout duck in the group; does every covey have its lookout? More little geysers of spray as they dive – it is as if they have all drilled for this moment, though they also pop back up quickly enough to suggest that a forward-looking eagle should be able to nab one as he or she emerges. But no, there’s no more awkward eagle-diving, only circling, which goes on for another long minute before its time for another pine rest.
And then, a minute or so later, the eagle leaves, flying upcoast for, who knows? – dumber ducks, slow fish, perhaps an attempt to shakedown a more efficient osprey, who, unlike our eagle, dives often and comes up with food sometimes.
But for three minutes we have been admitted to an avian theater with three, floating front-row seats.
Note: I’ve posted this piece once before, on July 4th of last year, and so a second posting makes a bit of a tradition of it. Happy dependence day!
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.
I sit in my boat on Walden, playing the flute this evening and see the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon traveling over the bottom, which is strewn with the wrecks of the forest, and feel that nothing but the wildest imagination can conceive of the manner of life we are living. Thoreau, Journal, 5/27/41
But for a few mosquitoes, these evening hours are the year’s most inviting. Even midnight reminds that this is the season of light; the night sky never wears the tight-fitting wool cap of winter – it is always some wash of gray. The old day filters up still into the western sky until, taking over, the new day promises from the east.
If I lived by a pond, I would be out on it in these hours. Which tend also to be wind-quiet ones. Still, the nearby coves of sea will do, and some evenings, I go there. Whatever has blown through during the day (fronts warm or cold) to stir the leaves and waves dissipates as the sun slips down, and the water goes glassy. Now the only wavelets are those of the vee that trails me wherever I go, announcing my passage, pointing to my presence, predicting my way.
Then, a little offshore, I stow my paddle and float only.
Even the mosquitoes seem entranced. They circle lethargically; perhaps, after a long day of battling winds and biting warm-blooded water-goers, they are sated. I may may have the same appeal as a third dessert. I wave them away half-heartedly; they fly likewise. And then whatever it is that tethers me to the everyday disappears.
The tide ebbs and I float out under a sky shot with light. I am reminded of a friend who likes to take a rowboat out into the middle of a lake and then lie down and watch the sky until the boat’s bumping on some shoreline tells him to raise his head and see where he is. While the boat drifts the mind goes free. But for the shore…
The wood thrush’s is no opera music; it is not so much the composition as the strain, the tone, — cool bars of melody from the atmospheres of everlasting morning or evening. It is the quality of sound not the sequence. Thoreau, Journal, 7/5/52
The wood thrush was said to be Henry Thoreau’s favorite bird – he called it “the finest songster in the grove” – and its dependency on deep woods mimics his nicely. Whenever I hear a thrush, I know that I’ve made my way to the woods-world, to a fullness of forest; I am beyond the margin. Here then is one such walk.
Blood for the Thrush
Morning walk and
the sanguinaries gather
as if I were an offering; still,
I figure a thimbleful’s
fair trade for this liquid
trill, and I give
to those I miss
with my swinging cap
equivalent to a horse’s tail
in its constancy and futility.
In deep, I reach
a place where four songs
overlap, a rippling
these woods that some call home.
As we near solstice I find myself returning often in mind to the Walden image of summer-Henry “rapt in revery” in the doorway of his pondside house.
what square-footing did he need
in the world, living little
outside – anachronism even
as a young man,
another way of saying
timeless which some
see as eternal – lair
fitting nicely the proportions
of his human animal
five foot six and
let’s say 140 pounds
there he is “rapt”
in his doorway on
his limen “in revery.”
It’s deep summer, nothing
lasts; he knows autumn
tints are on the way,
the tubercular seed will
flower and drop, the
scarlet oak will hold its
red a long time,
but today he is exactly
between worlds, so
at home that even the birds
flit “noiselessly through
the house,” suspended
above its rectangular
“I grew in these seasons
like corn in the night,”
he will write
the loop of a day,
encircling a lifetime,
squaring its effect
again and again.
It ripples out still,
reaching me in my slat
of sun by an open window
these 161 summers later.
“But give me a spruce house made in the rain.” Thoreau in an 11/4/60 letter to H.G.O. Blake.
When he wrote these words, Henry Thoreau was thinking back to his summer trip to the White Mountains, and he was musing about, for him, a usual annoyance:
several nuisances that make traveling there-abouts unpleasant…The chief of these was the mt houses. I might have supposed that the main attraction of that region, even to citizens, lay in its wildness and unlikeness to the city, & yet they make it as much like the city as they can afford to. I heard that the Crawford House was lighted with gas & had a large saloon, with its band for music, for dancing.
I go to these same mountains later today, aiming for a mix of research and rambling. And a glance at the forecast says I may see some rain; on high there’s been some June snow and ice, a brief refresher for the last scraps of winter shaded still in high crevices. Remnant winter may suggest that I stay low.
What I most need to remember, even as I slip on the straps of the little settlement of my pack, is that I am going to a “spruce house,” not a “mt house,” some little replica of what I already know perched on a high slope. In the White Mountains, many of the “mt houses” of Thoreau’s time are gone, though their foundation stones still form rectangles on top of Lafayette and Moosilauke, for example. And Mt Washington remains a “mt house” outpost in the sky, with buildings old and new. But other peaks feature mostly water- and wind-worn stone and stunted spruce.
There is, however, new encroachment – for many who walk to these summits the “mt house” now takes the form of a mt screen, carrying in it news of the valley; on a screen, “they make it as much like the city as they can afford to.” And now, even on mountain summits, I often see people in the familiar screen-hunch so common along our sidewalks and cafes of our cities. We seem ever more reluctant to go to the “unlikeness to the city,” to leave it behind.
Why is that?
If a band plays on up there, its music should be the wind in the trees and across the rocks. And I would have a different kind of dancing in a spruce house.
While I’ve not had a chance to visit the new solar array at Thoreau Farm, I have seen pictures and gotten notice via the mail. At the same time, even at this relatively lofty latitude in Maine, I’ve been watching nearby houses take on panels, angled, of course, just so to catch the southwestern arc our sun takes. And last year, nearby Bowdoin College completed a solar installation that covers the huge tundra of roof above their field house and hockey rink.
All of this in a state that suffers one of the country’s most regressive governors, and one of the few politicians who might be capable – sadly – matching D Trump mouth for mouth.
Imagine what might happen with a little political light, will and encouragement.
For now, however, I desist with this line of thought and return to panels facing the sun. And, when I turn that way and angle my face likewise and close my eyes, I am reminded of Henry Thoreau sitting for the sunny morning in his Walden doorway “rapt in revery,” and I am reminded also of his meditation on direction for a walk in “Walking”:
When I go out of my house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to instinct to decide for me, I find…that I finally and inevitably settle southwest…My needle is slow to settle…and does not always point southwest, but it always settles between west and southwest. The future lies that way to me…
Always sun aware, Henry Thoreau saw its direction as the way of progress, the way to what’s next. And Thoreau realized (favorite Henry verb) that the project of the day was not to make America great again, but to realize the land’s and its peoples’ potential by going forward. He points the way at Walden’s end:
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
Thoreau Farm’s solar panels, open like pages to the sun, join with thousands of other new panels/pages in pointing the way forward, in turning light into a better life.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau, Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”
The front yard HAD to be mowed. I had cut the whole back yard a few days earlier. But with all of the rain we had gotten, the grass just kept on growing. Another storm front was on its way, and I had just a small window of time after work before the raindrops were sure to fall. I hurried home, filled the mower’s gas-tank, and yanked on the cord. Since the landlord had recently changed the spark plug and the air filter, the machine roared right up. It practically carried me along with it.
Usually I enjoy the act of mowing. I get a chance to take a closer look at nature. Most of my lawn isn’t grass, of course. The violets, clover, wild strawberries, creeping Charlie, oxalis, and black medic far outnumber any blades of grass. But isn’t diversity good? And from the street, who can tell? It’s all greenery. I think the variety is fun to see. And the bunnies, birds, and squirrels seem to appreciate it a lot, too.
But today I was driving angry, so to speak. The world was too much with me. I was turning thoughts around in my head: mostly from posts I had seen online, and mostly geared toward our tangled political scene. I should know enough to ignore such stuff. But today it had overwhelmed me. I was furious. I marched up and down my rows with determination, chewing on every little political exchange I had seen and participated in, in recent days. I wasn’t enjoying my mowing at all. Truth be told, I wasn’t even there.
I swung around again to the patch of clover next to the sidewalk. Abruptly, I stopped; there was a big bumblebee scurrying among the flowers. I paused, waiting for him to finish his good work. I brake for all animals. Except that it seemed to be taking him a long time to attend to these flowers, and I quickly realized that he wasn’t flying from one bloom to the next. He was tiptoeing haphazardly around their stems. I bent down to take a closer look, still with my grip on the mower handle. In the next instant, I saw that only one of his wings, the left one, was buzzing. The right one stood still, and was cocked at an odd angle. It looked as if he’d gotten hurt somehow. Poor guy. And then the true horror dawned on me. It was my fault. I had run over him in the last pass-through. I hadn’t even seen him then. How could I have been so careless?
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I chanted to the bee. Darn it. I couldn’t do anything to fix this situation. A bee that can’t fly is doomed. And it was all my fault. Still, I had to finish the yard work. A pre-storm breeze had begun to blow, and the sky was growing dark. I mowed around the clover and apologized to the bee every time I came close. How could I have done such a terrible thing?
If you know me or read my posts here, you know that I’m an animal lover. I freely let spiders live in all corners of the house. (http://thoreaufarm.org/2014/08/down-came-a-spider/) I once relocated a misled mouse from the kitchen to the basement of Thoreau Farm (http://thoreaufarm.org/2015/10/henry-and-the-mouse/) I do my best to do no harm to my fellow planet-dwellers. And yet this time, I had let outside events play hard enough on my emotions that I hadn’t been paying attention to what I was doing. If this was a key lesson from the Universe, it was a particularly difficult one to bear.
“It sometimes 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”
Ah, you’re right, Henry. I was out of my senses. I hadn’t seen what was right in front of me. I let the ridiculousness of current events distract me. I should have known better.
After I finished the job and locked the mower away, I returned to the scene of distracted crime. The bee was still staggering around the clover patch. Sometimes he took a tumble and did a somersault or two because of the uncertain footing. I had grounded a pilot who barely knew how to walk. I had sentenced him to certain death. And still I kept apologizing, as if it would do him any good: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Every few hours I checked on him, as if in hope that he would shake off the experience and would suddenly take off and say goodbye. But we both knew this wouldn’t happen.
He made it through the light rain overnight, and he made it into another day. The last time I saw the bumblebee, he was sitting quite still on top of the violets. The broken right wing was now gone entirely. I wasn’t sure if he was even alive. But when I broke off a clover flower and put it down gently near him, he flinched a little bit. No, I’m not going to hurt you again, Bee. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He waved one of his antennas at me, or at the flower. By the following day, he was no where to be found.
Days later, I admitted my awful deed to a friend. At first, he made light of the story. But when he saw how serious and upset I was about hurting the bee, he said quietly, “Did you do it in malice and with an intent to ill will?”
“No, of course not,” I said.
“Then you need to forgive yourself, as the bee has already forgiven you.”
Wow. Thank you, wise friend.
The grass continues to grow. Soon I have to mow again. But this time, I’ll pay closer attention. I’ll leave the outside world to deal with itself and concentrate on my own little part of it. I would fain return to my senses, and to the person I know myself to be.
It is remarkable how, as you are leaving a mountain and looking back at it from time to time, it gradually gathers up its slopes and spurs to itself into a regular whole, and makes a new and total impression. Thoreau, Journal, 6/4/58
Smitten with rock.
Let’s begin there, and already you may be saying, “this guy is odd, or hard up,” and that may be true. But it is really a softness of heart for the slow, foot-won world that has me writing this. Which is really a way of calling back some moments on The Dome that I want to hold on to.
On May 25th I go to the source. In New Hampshire for book research and to train for my Run the Alps summer fantasy, I drive first to my home mountain, Cardigan, then north through the close vee of Franconia Notch and around the White Mountains before dropping down to Randolph. There, on the slopes of Randolph Hill, I visit with Run the Alps’ founder, Doug Mayer. With me, I have my running gear, and, the day prior, I’ve quick-walked up Gilman Mountain, jogged over to South Peak and descended into dusk on a favored, 6-mile loop near my home mountain. All okay, and so, when Doug says, let’s run a loop on Madison’s lower slopes around 5:00, I’m in.
If you run 99% of your trails solo, trail-running with another can distract: first, if you are the wheel-dog, and I am, there’s always motion ahead of you, the fringe kind that yanks your eyes its way, leaving your feet to fend for themselves among the roots and stones; then there’s companionship’s fuel – I don’t want to let another runner down by slowing him. And, though both canids at heart, we are different dogs: Doug’s slight, light on his paws; I am a blockier sled-puller.
So the start is predictable: I go out too fast, even as that adverb and intensifier wouldn’t occur to any observer. Along the mild early up of the Valley Way, my breathing – some machine run amok in the garden – alerts Doug; he slows, walks any real uptick, and we climb. Which, 50 minutes later, turns out to be 1600 feet where we pause to cross Snyder Brook.
“Okay, here’s the reward part,” says Doug. And it is. We slab above the brook to a balsam forest that could be imported from Maine’s coast, easing over its dense-needled, soft, auburn path to the Dome. There, the woods fall away, and a world of air and ridges coalesces before us. I stand there chuffing it all in.
We’re also on my father’s mountain, where, some 75 years ago, he worked in the nearby AMC hut and built his own little White Mountain legend as a 20-something, and where he led me first as a boy. But I have never been here.
The view up to Mt. Adams with its last, winking snow patches is superb, but its the Dome’s rock that holds my eye. Graceful swirls animate its surface, and its rough, mottled grays shift subtly. It is artful granite that tells of both its molten origins and millennia of weathers. The stone keeps swirling, and now I expect some little flute music to drift from the air, tune of a geologic dancing so long and slow that we rarely see it. Soon we will canter down, but for a moment I am outside of time.
And I have run here. I am a lucky dog.
Coda: Now, perhaps, you want to know where this Dome is. Ah, it’s already weathered so much, and a trail leads right to it, so it’s no secret. Here’s how to get there: go to the Appalachia trailhead parking lot in Randolph, NH; park there and sort out the array of possible trails to this sequence: Valley Way to Brookside to Kelton to Dome to Inlook to Beech Way to Airline back to parking.
Lace up your shoes.
Note: An original version of this appeared on the Run the Alps site, which, if you like mountains, is worth a visit: http://runthealps.com/
Everywhere now in the dry pitch pine woods, the red lady-slippers over the red pine leaves on the forest floor, rejoicing in June, with their two broad, curving green leaves – some even in the swamps – upholding their rich, striped, red, drooping sacks. Journal, Thoreau, 6/5/56
Two hundred and thirty-six was yesterday’s count, and it was a glancing one. I was running and so scanning only one side of the trail, the right side on the way out and then on the way back, and that tally would have swelled had I paused to look more deeply. Still, that’s 118 princesses shod, a good hour’s work, I think.
What was orchid budding when I left for the mountains had bloomed when I returned. It is peak orchid season in our nearby woods, and, unless a searing heat arrives, these seemingly fragile flowers will last up to two weeks, longer than almost any other spring blossom.
I first started counting lady slippers when we lived in Concord and I spent a lot of foot-time in Estabrook Woods. There, they are not rare – sometimes I counted up to 50 along the various paths – but they are no as prolific as in our nearby Commons.
Here slipper-numerics nearly overwhelm. And yet I count anyway. Why, I wonder, is that? Habit accounts for some part of an answer, but there must be more. I don’t, for example, count the equally prized (in my eyes) trillium, which proliferates in my home mountains, even as only a stalk or three show in nearby woods here.
Here, I turn to a story about Henry Thoreau:
A posted article in the New York Times on January 16, 2013, (looking forward to spring, I’m sure) chronicled some of Thoreau’s late life work on what might have become the Concord Almanac. Here is professor Charles Davis speaking in that story: “Thoreau was sort of crazed, traveling near and far across Concord to find the earliest flowering species, many of which can no longer be found in the area,” said Charles Davis, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. “We don’t ultimately know why he was gathering this data.”
We know that Thoreau had a scientific bent and eye, and that his last years saw that eye sharpened and his appetite for data strengthened. But what I like in this description is the word “crazed.” It is so human in its enthusiasm.
Which, perhaps, is why I count slippers each spring (even as I don’t record my findings). I go “near and far” to see them, counting along the way. Are we not all “crazed” similarly some of the time?
I love to sit in the wind on this hill and be blown on. We bathe thus first in the air; then, when the air has warmed it, in water. Thoreau, Journal, 5/15/53
Every so often the daily trail morphs into a multi-day way; I suppose that’s the difference between walking and traveling. Anyway, some upland research will take me to the White Mountains for a few days, where spring is much more various than our coastal version. The green “fur” of budding trees colors the valleys, but, even in this year of absent-winter, there’s still some ice up high. There the buds hold tight, waiting for warm air. So going uphill is going back in time, if only a little way. And then, from up high, you look down and see spring flooding into the valleys, working its way higher on the ridges, coming your way again.
Shuffling off into this various time feels contemplative – as the world hurries to announce itself, I slow down. Perhaps that’s what spring fever is, a little lassitude thrown in with all this springing up. At a time when green seems to gallop, I tend toward amble, and that may also be because the days stretch toward solstice. The light’s in under the shade before 5 a.m. and it lasts past 8 p.m. It’s enough to make me feel the stir of my Scottish ancestry, where short summer nights are only versions of twilight.
And that little stir creates a doubleness of sorts, and kind of here and there of self. Which, as I think of it, may be like molting, a mixed state of old and new, all in service of later flight. Flight is, of course, a project for a whole or complete being; no little bit of this feather or that one for a flyer – the whole set’s needed to parse and ride the wind. And now that I’m imagining feathers and flight, I know it’s not molting but rather fledging I have in mind.
In a million nests, one of which occupies the twig-wreath by our front door, the next generation of flyers grows its feathers. Even a glance at the nest every so often points to the race taking place within – will the feathers form before the nestlings jostle each other out of the now too-small nest? Will the parents, who must be down more than a pint of energy, be able to keep up the steady stream of bugs and other bits of food that build the feathers? Our house finches probably wonder this each day. It will be close.
In a few days, when I return from the mountains, it’s likely we’ll be changed, the birds and I, winging suddenly into our fully-leafed summer lives. Every spring a fledgling; every summer on wing. That’s the hope our finches offer.
“The lady’s slipper in the pitch pine woodside near J. Hosmer’s Desert, probably about the 27th.” 5/30/56, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner.
I’m on my way home when I see the season’s first orchid. It’s a day or so before it reaches the showy-phase with its white-pink slippers tipped just so, but the two splayed, glossy leaves and the rising neck, with its bud shy seeming, are enough; almost enough to make me camp here and wait for their flower. Almost.
Instead, I’ll return tomorrow, and, as I go south into the deeper woods and reach the pitch pine plain at their core, I’ll get orchid eyes, the eye-set that lets me see these rare plants everywhere. The forest floor is eruptive green at this time of year, and all those greens are fresh and appealing. And its daubs of white, wildflowers draw the eye too, but I await especially the lady slippers, which people the woods like…people.
Some rise in clusters, and in years past in each of my circuits of Concord’s Estabrook Woods, I knew where to look for these tiny towns or tribes. One in particular grows near the two-mile marker, a waist-high granite post as you walk south along the Old Carlisle Road. From there it’s two miles to our revolution’s “rude bridge that arched the flood,” though during most springs, it has both feet in the flood – no dry-shod revolutionaries these days. Each spring somewhere between ten and twenty slippers rise on the sunny bank to the left of the post.
Then, a while farther along, at the overlook for Stump Pond, if you crane your neck to peer down the slope leading to the water, there are always a few solitary slippers. The same is true along the esker that runs along the pond’s north flank. Here are the Thoreaus of the species, the slippers who like a little distance from their neighbors.
When the flower shows, inclined just as someone might hold a slipper for a lady’s foot, our native orchid is easy to spot, insistent really. Whose foot? As often happens, we look back to the Greeks and into the mists of myth for answer: the genus name Cypripedium fuses Cypris and pedilion; this “sandal” awaits Aphrodite…as do many of us.
But for these few days before the blossom, it takes orchid eyes to find them amid all the other look-at-me greenery. And It is a little like putting on special lenses: once they are in place, orchid plant after orchid plant appears.
Soon it’s clear, these pitch-pine woods could shoe all the Aphrodites and Cinderellas in the world.
In Boston yesterday and ornithologist said significantly, “If you held the bird in your hand –;” but I would rather hold it in my affections. – Thoreau, Journal, 5/10/54
I am 150 miles southwest of my usual range, here in Connecticut on a family visit, and, by coincidence, now in Stafford Springs for the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race. It’s a blustery morning, with the wind blowing cool reminder from home.
I replace the word “race” with the friendlier “run” and set out at the command of our director, a slight woman perched atop a glacial erratic. We are a many-footed beast, and we shuffle down a dirt road, headed for the single-track trail ahead. There, at first, we will bunch like a human scrunchie, but, over time, we will stretch all the way to solitude.
Our way is marked by white paint dots and, at junctions by ankle-high flaglets that remind of a dog’s electronic boundary. “Don’t go over there, boy,” I say to self and I stay of track.
The run becomes a collage of little moments and the always-rhythm of attention to footsteps; the sights and my own little song take me elsewhere, out of this world.
An then, at 20k, just past the last aid station with its caloric and human boost – “Nice going; almost there” – I’m flagging; the little laughter of two girls who just passed me recedes in the hardwoods ahead, and it’s just tired me here. Sigh, why? A flash of color draws my eye and a scarlet tanager lights at eye level on a branch 15 feet away. His brightness wrings a smile from me, lifts my head, and he stays, his scarlet kindled against the lime-green leaves just unfurling. I stop, watch, want to trill a birdsong of thanks. Any sense of needing to be elsewhere vanishes.
Now I can go on.
So it is to be bird blessed in woods near or far.
These days, when a soft west or southwest wind blows and it is truly warm, and an outside coat is oppressive, — these bring out the butterflies and the frogs, and the marsh hawks, which prey upon the last. Just so simple is every year.” Thoreau, Journal, 4/5/54
Back from today’s run, I set to the dull-but-necessary stretching, and, while bent variously, I see motion where there’s usually none. It is tiny motion, to be sure, but on vision’s periphery, where the laces of my shoe cross, binding me in, something’s stirring. “Ah,” says my hoppy mind, glad for any distraction from the stasis of stretch-and-hold.
The motion bunches, then reaches and a new season begins – I have spring’s first green rider, who must have hitched this ride somewhere back in the woods. And, given that my rider’s on my shoe and lime-colored, not long ago it must have been grazing on a blade of trailside grass. But now, on this charcoal-colored expanse, it is obvious, a magnet for whatever eye is aloft.
Later in the season, this little guy’s relatives will be well over an inch long, but this one’s well under the measure of what may be his name. Inchworm? I click into the wires of research.
More names: “measuring worms, spanworms, loopers,” that’s reason enough for research. Then there’s motion’s method: “An inchworm moves by drawing its hind end forward while holding on with the front legs, then advancing its front section while holding on with the prolegs.” Prolegs? Do I have any of those? Sounds like a trademark. I look at my one-after-the-other feet. My green rider appears to be waving as he searches for a way down off the raised lace of mid-shoe.
Reaching, waving…there must be food out there somewhere; got to keep at it. By now – you probably agree – I have overstretched.
So it’s time for the green-rider-ritual: I stand and walk carefully over to the nearest weed, a dandelion this time, and I pluck a leaf, which I then place in the path of my rider. He reaches out, touches the leaf’s edge, but I am vibrating a bit, and, suspicious of the shaky world, he pulls back, heads off 90-degrees away. I shift the leaf to his path again. What an odd world where a leaf recurs in each direction? Well, he must think, nothing to do but get on board, and he loops up and on.
Now, following reason’s path, I go to the grass at lawn’s border and settle the rider’s leaf in it. A couple of loops take him off-ship, into a new world. I go back to stretching, back the linear track of today.
But now, as I coax flex into my muscles, I’m thinking about metamorphosis: if all goes as it should for the little green rider, some days in the future, he’ll give up looping, inching along and fly away. He is a moth-in-the-making.
And, if all goes well for me, I, a runner-in-the-making, will return to the trails tomorrow for the closest motion to flight I know.
Late in May, 1849, Henry Thoreau published his first book. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, met little public enthusiasm, and because Thoreau had taken on some debt to get his book out, in the end he owed money. The best he seemed able to realize from the venture was his famous “library” joke, wherein he boasted to owning over 1000 books, 700 of which he had written himself. Not a promising start for a most famous writer.
Still, May is a month for fliers – for seeing them, and for taking them – and I’ve returned to the rivers and thickets of A Week as an appreciation for flight, for the setting out that is all enterprise – on water, on air. Pick your liquid. But, once you have, set forth on it.
Thoreau opens A Week with a short chapter of long sentences about the Concord River, and he is intent on epic associations before setting out on his own. He describes his local river as,
…a huge volume of matter, ceaselessly rolling through the plains and valleys…making haste from the high places of earth to its ancient reservoir. The murmurs of many a famous river on the other side of the globe reach even to us here,…many a poet’s stream floating the helms and shields of heroes…The Xanthus or Scamander is not a mere dry channel and bed of a mountain torrent, but fed by the ever-flowing springs of fame;…
Ah, to Troy even. All this before we cast off with Thoreau and his brother John, who set out on Saturday, the next chapter.
At length, on Saturday, the last day of August, 1839, we two, brothers, and natives of Concord, weighed anchor in this river port; for Concord too, lies under the sun, a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men;…
It’s near noon, and now’s the time. I shuck off my work, putting aside my keyboard. And…avert your eyes…I shuck off my clothes too…in favor of others less long-sleeved and leg-sheathed. Then I tie my feet into trail shoes, and I’m off.
When you run, however slowly, the land too is liquid. And, after the obligatory whinging from everything that’s been sitting all morning, I begin to flow along the spring-soft trail, and on into the woods. I am, along this wave-wrinkled land, a foot-pilot, steering first between those two pines, then over the crest of a rise.
What’s on the other side? Let’s go see.
I will confess to a little gloominess in recent days – it’s hard to turn a page or click a link and find good news in the next page or screen. And yet, as I work each morning near an open window, or read at night and hear the peepers soliciting each other, my low mood rises.
As part of my work, I’ve been rereading some of Thoreau’s journal from 1854 – a year when he is, perhaps, at the height of his powers. Publication of Walden’s not far away; the long trudge through draft after draft’s nearly done. It is time to look up…and out.
Our world tends more and more toward scolds, even as decades of experience make clear that most of us don’t respond well to even the most well-meaning of them. And, surely, we’ve all read passages where Thoreau points a finger at us and shakes it. But as I’ve read through the spring of ’54, with its burgeoning life, it’s clear Thoreau can scarcely contain himself. Here is odd example: on 4/14/54, he is annoyed at the distraction of a body that has had the temerity to turn up in the Sudbury River near Fair Haven Pond. How dare human death and woe distract from the birthing of the world? That seems a bit callous, but Thoreau isn’t being mean spirited, I think; he is simply intent on his season.
Today’s Fairhaven Bay is immeasurably, or nearly so, wilder and more forested than in Thoreau’s time, but he finds so much joy in even this scalped landscape; he can’t stop noting what’s there, instead of what’s not, even as what’s not there could be a book in itself. But as spring runs its sap through him, he is joyful…and remarkably observant of each plant’s advent. All these little births; all this uplift. It’s enough to make you think that life does go on.
So it is with the violets, who just now are enjoying their high season in the yard. One section is wearing a coverlet of purple and white; it looks regal. I watch them as I have my morning coffee.
Added note: and today, one of the rhododendrons came out; soon, the lilacs. Purple phase all through my brain – (apologies to J Hendrix).
Corinne H. Smith
“The lilac is beginning to open to-day.” ~ Thoreau’s Journal, April 24, 1854
It was going on 9 p.m., and I was in the mood for a candy bar. Alas, my cupboards were bare. Fortunately for me in times like these, I live just one block behind a strip mall anchored by a large grocery store. (When the garbage trucks come in the middle of the night to empty the metal dumpsters, this proximity doesn’t seem to be quite as wonderful and convenient as it is during daylight hours, however.) So I put on my shoes and jacket and went out into the night. It was a chilly but nice walk of a hundred or more steps along the macadam on my side of the street. It was quiet, too. No one else was out and about. Nice.
By contrast, the store was as startlingly bright and blazing as usual, although business was winding down toward closing time. I searched the checkout aisles for my favorite grab-n-go chocolate, then circled around to the only clerk still standing. He looked tired and bored. “I don’t have a card. And I don’t need a bag,” I told him. In less than a minute, I was back out on the sidewalk and heading toward the house, equipped with my treasure. I would wait to slice open the wrapper when I reached the kitchen.
Back here away from the parking lot, only corner intersections have streetlights. So I kept my eyes on the wide dark strip I recognized as macadam, to make sure of solid footing. Next to me were the various shades of gray representing my neighbor’s evergreens, lawn, and sundry bushes. I was almost next to his house when I was practically knocked over by an aroma. “Whoa.” I stopped and backed up a few steps. The lilac bush! I had forgotten that John had a nice purple lilac bush planted here. And who would have thought that the buds would be opening now? But of course they would. It’s the right time of the season, silly. I grabbed a thin branch and put its petalled tip to my nose. OMG. This is one of my favorite fragrances, ever. I inhaled it a few times and basked in the marvel, then reluctantly let the branch spring back to its brothers. My stomach was growling, and I needed to get home.
Lilacs always surprise me. By the time they burst forth, we’ve already seen the traditional colors of suburban Spring: yellow daffodils and forsythia, blue hyacinths and crocuses, pink flowering and Japanese cherries, and lots of other vivid flowers and trees. Many have lost their petals and are in leaf by now. And just when we’re getting used to living in a green world again, the lilacs show up. And boy, do they pack a punch! Maybe the others serve as mere appetizers, and the lilacs are the main event. This is not a bad thing, to my mind.
As much as I like lilacs, I have never attended a lilac festival. I know that the two big ones are in Rochester, New York (May 6-15) and on Mackinac Island, Michigan (June 3-12). But now that I think of it, I remember seeing a fair number of lilac bushes in various yards along the route of my usual mile-long neighborhood walk. I haven’t sauntered out there in a while. It’s time to go out again on a regular basis. You can be sure that I’ll take time to sample the fragrances of each and every bush. And this time, I won’t wait until the cover of darkness to do it.
“The lilac is scented at every house.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 22, 1853
We’re on our way to this reality, Henry.
This is the season for everything…There is time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts, and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his. Thoreau, Journal, 4/24/59
Or try this one: by the time Geoff and I reach the south end of Scrag Island, we’ve stopped twice to warm our hands. The buoys say the water’s reading around 42 degrees, and, even with the sun square on our hands, that 42 trumps whatever the sun’s coaxed into the air. But the green water shines, and we’ve just watched an osprey brings strands of grass to its nestbound mate, perhaps a final lining for anticipated ospreylets. Both birds have keened at our nearness, and we have paddled farther off their island’s shore.
Our next aim, once we warm hands, is the eagle’s nest on Little Iron Island, a drama-site during 2014, with two eaglets compressing all the outrage of adolescence into a month before they finally fledged. One day we watched tantrum sticks fly from the nest, as an eaglet showed his displeasure…at what we didn’t know. The parent eagles, who shlepped out and back repeatedly with food, looked exhausted by July. For them it seemed the season for one thing only. Constant hunger, no sleep, and all these squalling demands – when will they fly, their posture seemed to say. And then, one day they did.
Perhaps 2014 put the parents off on this egg-to-eaglet thing, but whatever the reason, the nest was vacant in 2015. What about now, we wonder.
We float the incoming tide slowly by the iron-streaked islet; the nest is empty, even as it looks solid, looks like a house I would buy.
Well, on to the next of everything, and there it is, the up and down flight of the season’s first kingfisher as it hurls itself forward. With its outsized head and long tine of beak, it seems to need extra speed just to stay airborne; or perhaps it’s simply necessary speed in pursuit of everything.
For Henry Thoreau, Ripple Lake was Goose Pond, neighbor water to Walden, and for us it’s the cold water of Middle Bay. Everywhere, though, it’s time to watch the ripples.
“Realize” is one of Henry Thoreau’s favorite verbs, and surely the word in other forms drew his eye too. “Reality is fabulous,” he wrote in Walden, and his pursuit of the real in his daily walks is everywhere recorded in his journals.
But today, here in Maine? Really? Is it really spring? And is that really snow, the sort that falls in flakes beyond counting – a bonanza of flakes it might be called – and then begins to be itself on the ground…and on every limb and twig?
I ask the birds as I refill the feeder: “Really?” I say. “Keep filling the sleeve,” they say. “It’s getting hard to find seeds out here. Pour, man; pour.”
I do as I’m told; I am a compliant human, a pour man. Then, I retreat to work in my windowside chair; I realize the snow’s not stopping.
“On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning.” Thoreau – from an early draft of Walden
Recent research, on page and on foot, has taken me to some of Henry Thoreau’s upland excursions, the ones where he traveled a good deal beyond Concord rather than within. In particular, I’ve been reading and imagining about his two journeys into the White Mountains and up Mount Washington.
Henry Thoreau first went to the White Mountains in 1839, beginning his two-week trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, thereby seeding the narrative of his first book. One might suspect that Thoreau’s climb of northeastern high point, Mount Washington would show as a high point in his notes, but it passes in a single clipped sentence. The meandering rivers get their due, as they do also in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But Thoreau’s overland mountain tour in 1858 is, in his journal, a different story; its chronicle covers more than 60 pages, and it is rich with detail.
In his dates and in his commentary, Thoreau catches nicely the early history of climbing on our White Mountains. In 1839, Thoreau and his brother weren’t first on the uplands, but they were part of the vanguard of visitors drawn to its transcendent landscape. Twenty-one years later, Thoreau and his companion Edward Hoar arrived at the height of the pre-Civil War tourist boom: now there were two hotels on top of Washington, and, though Henry, per usual, relied on his own two feet, scores of tourists now rode their way up prominent, popular mountains on bridle paths.
As with many activities that drew throngs, Thoreau later had something to say about mountaintop buildings: “I think that the top of Mt. Washington should not be private property; it should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence’s sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to.” 1/3/61
But what catches my modern eye is his July 8th description of leaving Mount Washington’s summit in the fog, bound for Tuckerman Ravine:
About 8:15 A.M., being still in dense fog, restarted direct for Tuckerman Ravine, I having taken the bearing of it before the fog, but Spaulding [a summit hotelier] also went some ten rods with us and pointed toward the head of the ravine, which was about S 15 degrees W. Hoar tried to hire Page to go with us, carrying part of our baggage, — as he had already brought it up from the shanty [along the carriage road where they spent the prior night] — and he professed to be acquainted with the mountain; but his brother, who lived at the summit, warned him not to go, lest he should not be able to find his way back again, and he declined. The landlords were rather anxious about us. I looked at my compass every four or five rods and the walked toward some rock in our course, but frequently after taking three or four steps, though the fog was no more dense, I would lose the rock I steered for. The fog was very bewildering. You would think that the rock you steered for was some large boulder twenty rods off, or perchance it looked like the bow of a distant spur, but a dozen steps would take you to it, and it would suddenly have sunk into the ground. I discovered this illusion. I said to my companions, “You see that boulder of peculiar form, slanting over another. Well, that is in our course. How large do you think it is, and how far?” To my surprise, one answered three rods, but the other said nine. I guessed four, and we all thought it about eight feet high. We could not see beyond it, and it looked like the highest part of a ridge before us. At the end of twenty-one paces, or three and a half rods, I stepped upon it, — less than two feet high — and I could not have distinguished it from the hundred similar ones around it, if I had not kept my eye on it all the while. Journal
Thoreau, who was a quick study, then offered comment that reads as kin to the sort of advice a reader can find in a modern guidebook about hiking, or in the lesson-drawing comments of mountain accident analyses.
It is unwise,” he writes, “for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. An ordinary rock in a fog, being in the apparent horizon, is exaggerated to, perhaps, at least ten times its size and stance. You will think you have gone further than you have to get to it. Journal
There is, in Thoreau’s description, the hint of menace that fog and unsightedness can carry on an exposed mountain. You can quickly lose your way, become wrapped in illusion, which carries you farther afield; all the while the very rocks on which you walk seem to change size, shift shapes, reminding you also that nothing grows up here, that life’s supports are far below, and that you must go there to live on.
Given good facility with a compass, measures of distance and sound footing courtesy of his work as a surveyor and his long walkings, Thoreau leads the way just there; he and Hoar and companion go down unerringly to Tuckerman Ravine. Already his foot habits are making him familiar with the land. But Thoreau also seems aware that they have reached an edge, a place where accident and trouble are close by, a place visited often by modern search and rescue and its narratives of loss. These mountains, he sees, even in early July, can be a terra of trouble.
Prescient, as ever.
Reader’s Note: My research has also led me J. Parker Huber’s delightful 1999 compilation, Elevating Ourselves, Thoreau on Mountains.
The title phrase comes from novelist Ian McEwan, and, when I encountered it the other day, it vibrated with a particular resonance. Recently, offered a book contract, I’ve settled into a routine that will, I hope, carry me to completion of my new job: after loosing the little workman of caffeine in my bloodstream, and in the morning’s rising light, I go to the mix of research, musing and writing that shapes each day. But at some late morning point, even if I give myself a pep-talk about resolve and deadlines, the words – mine or those of others – lie inert on the screen or page. I write a sentence or paragraph, reread it, and I realize that I don’t have “it” any more, if ever “it” has appeared that day.
What to do? Like many of us, I first check e-mail, though “it” has never written to me. But yesterday, McEwan’s phrase appeared there in a message from my sister-in-law, who thought I’d like the clip where he uses it. I clicked and listened to find out what useful passivity is. It wasn’t long before I found a link to Henry Thoreau, though the link was in practice and not in name. McEwan was praising time away from task, and I slipped the word “necessary” into “useful”’s place; that gave it more Thoreauvian resonance.
In the short clip, McEwan thinks about creativity and the moments when he arrives at an insight or a subject or a phrasing and the mystery of that arrival. Getting there, he thinks, takes travel, but it’s not the sort of direct line we imagine when we draw a line from A to B. Instead, it’s an alphabet of meandering, of the sort a traveler does in a new country. Or a walker in the new hours of afternoon. Here then was Henry Thoreau’s daily walking habit; there then was my own trail-dependency.
Every day when “it” vanishes, I go out to the day’s trail. Sometimes, I fire up the hammer of my heart and run; other times I amble along in search of foot-digressions. I go up and down. I go sideways, here and there. A flash of color alerts me to an idea, or to a bird. I’m not at work, but work can’t happen without this time outside. “It” is out here somewhere.
Here’s the link to the McEwan clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9LZfX3Y8TI
By Corinne H. Smith
The air is full of the notes of birds, — song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds, — and I hear also a lark, — as if all the earth had burst forth into song. The influence of this April morning has reached them, for they live out-of-doors all the night, and there is no danger that they will oversleep themselves such a morning. ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 2, 1852
Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
~ Eleanor Farjeon, “Morning Has Broken”
Each spring I look forward to hearing what I call the First Bird of the Morning. He’s the first one to wake up and the first one to sing his song. He sings for a few minutes, then he stops. There’s a momentary pause throughout the neighborhood. (For all I know, the other birds may have groaned, mumbled, and hit their snooze buttons.) After 20-30 minutes of relative calm, the rest of the avian residents finally wake up and chime in, with the First Bird of the Morning leading the chorus. It’s a lovely symphony that filters into the inch of air allowed by my open bedroom window.
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed different species claim First Bird status. The first year I paid attention to this phenomenon, a robin took center stage. The next year, it was a mourning dove. I’ve heard first melodies from a house finch, a Carolina wren, and from someone I could never quite identify. This year, my First Bird is a song sparrow. And what a singer he is! He seems quite proud to have claimed the first arbor vitae bush next to the carport. He wants to tell the world exactly where his new home is. And his favorite stage of all is the stop sign at the corner.
Yesterday, my morning started like any other. I got up at 5 a.m. and fired up the computer and the teapot. By dawn I had finished with e-mail and social media and had turned to work on current projects. The morning bird music was “on” in the background. I heard the song sparrow again as a soloist after the sun had come up over the horizon. I thought I knew where he would be sitting for his performance. And sure enough, when I looked out the living room window, I saw him perched on the top edge of the stop sign.
But as I watched him rear back his head and offer his beautiful tiny notes to the sky, I saw something else, too. We had been under a frost warning overnight. No white coating covered the grass, but the outside thermometer still hovered around 30°. Accordingly, each time the First Bird sang, little white puffs of his breath came out, too. I had never seen such evidence of bird breath. I stood transfixed and said “Wow” with each delivery.
It was the smallest possible sighting, really: the exhalation of a warm-blooded creature into the chilly atmosphere that surrounded him. An inconsequential observance, most would say. And yet it struck an immediate chord with me. How often do we remember that these animals are breathing the same air that we are? That their little bodies have functioning life systems like ours do? (Each one “a parcel of vain strivings,” as Mr. Thoreau might say.) Probably rarely, if ever, and not as much as we should. But it’s solid proof that we are all connected by living together on this same home planet. I wonder if he saw MY breath in return when I carried the garbage bag out to the curb a few minutes later.
I grabbed the camera and tried to get photos of First Bird, but I can’t seem to get him in focus. You can get an impression of him, but you can’t see exactly what I saw. You’ll just have to take my word for it. The picture remains clear enough in my own mind’s eye.
As I type these sentences now in the following morning, I hear the song sparrow again. Sure enough, he’s sitting on the stop sign. But the air is a few degrees warmer than it was yesterday. I watch intently and I don’t see puffs of his breath. Too bad. I will always remember what they looked like, though. And I will remind myself to always acknowledge that he and I – and all the rest of them — are indeed fellow creatures sharing one single environment.
Editor’s Note: Corinne’s recently released book, Thoreau for Kids, drew a very fine review in the Chicago Tribune the other day. Here’s a link to that review: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-henry-david-thoreau-for-kids-20160414-story.html