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
Unless you’re shelving classics in alphabetical order by surname, the names of American authors Henry Thoreau and Mark Twain don’t usually surface at the same time. The two men never met, although their lives overlapped by 27 years. Twain began his writing career just as Thoreau was ending his. By then, they were based on opposite sides of the country. Their writing styles and choices of topics differed widely, of course. But both wrote travel narratives. And both were known for their keen powers of observing the activities of nature and man. Overall, Henry focused more on the first; and Mark, more on the second. Both had unique senses of humor, too.
One issue they may have agreed on was the costs they both incurred by choosing a certain way of earning money. They could have debated their results. Is it possible to be TOO familiar with Nature? Do we lose something irreplaceable when we gain too much technical knowledge of the natural world? Consider these two passages.
In his journal entry for January 1, 1858, Thoreau mourns the loss of finding wildness after conducting a lot of surveying:
“I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind’s eye – as, indeed, on paper – as so many men’s wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at any given moment passing from such a one’s wood-lot to another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.”
Compare these thoughts to those in Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in Chapter IX, called “Continued Perplexities.” He describes losing the ability to see beauty after learning to navigate a steamboat across the muddy Mississippi:
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!”
Twain recalls – to a time when he was known as Sam Clemens – how he once had been captivated by sunsets or by moonlight reflected in the water. He could relish the sights of ripples, sunken logs, and other imperfections that made the river view more interesting. These were the same idiosyncrasies that could have consequences if you happened to be steering a paddlewheel craft through the water. Now all he could see were potential navigational obstacles.
“But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. … No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”
These are sad words to read. Especially since both men were writing about their home territories and about places they loved. Walden Woods. The Mississippi River. I hope they both overcame these losses, and that these were only temporary setbacks. Or maybe the stresses were more complex. Maybe the men also inwardly bristled at the situations that forced them to be responsible to others for that keen but necessary focus on science and mechanics. Henry reported to the landowners. Young Sam Clemens’s duties were to a steamboat company and to an ever-changing packet of passengers. Neither had much time for sheer appreciation of the landscape.
And yet, I keep Thoreau and Twain in mind as I continue to read and learn more about plants and animals and habitats and such. If I’m in the forest, and I come upon a leaf that I recognize, will I be apt to say, “That’s a white oak,” and never look up at the terrific silhouette of the tree it came from? I wonder: If we learn “enough” about the natural world, do we risk never having another chance to witness its wildness or beauty? Will the facts always get in the way?
I can’t be the only one who worries about this dilemma. Surely scientists and park rangers must wrestle with it, too. Do you?
More fun with shovel on the roof today, and, yes, the arctic has reannounced itself (13 below this morning). I pitched my pounds of snow out into the air, and they fell with the thud of stone. But up there, on its slight southwestern pitch, I also got a face full of light, and in the little coves of my scarf, I could feel that light’s heat gathering. I leaned on my shovel, closed my eyes, and felt Spring coming on.
It is common announcement, but it feels like miracle as well, this tiny promise. And, as often happens when I’m outside, Henry Thoreau’s nosings about came to mind. In particular, I thought about his musings on the way seeds move with the wind and over the snow during the winter. Below me, the snow was littered with twigs and seeds from a recent gale, other tiny promises that, when linked with sun and water, would become the next season of growth.
In mid-February of 1856, Thoreau was, as usual, out walking and seeing what he could see:
I was struck today by the size and continuousness of the natural willow hedge on the east side of the railroad causeway, at the foot of the embankment, next to the fence. Some twelve years ago, when that causeway was built through the meadows, there were no willows there or near there, but now just at the foot of the sandbank, where it meets the meadow, and on the line of the fence, quite a dense willow hedge has planted itself. I used to think that the seeds were brought with the sand from the Deep Cut in the woods, but there is no golden willow there; but now I think that the seeds have been blown hither from a distance and lodged against the foot of the bank, just as the snow drift accumulates there…
…Thus they take advantage of even the railroad, which elsewhere disturbs and invades their domains. May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow! How tenacious of life! How withy! How soon it gets over its hurts! Journal 2/14/56
Blown this way and that by a winter of renown, I felt as if I had come to rest at the base of this bank of light; I felt its warmth. It seeds me for spring.
It’s not hard to decipher where this title came from. Like our touchstone, Henry Thoreau, I have been outside, and now, from my morning chair by two large windows, I can see the sheets, flurries and wind-worries of leftover storm, which follows earlier storm and, I suppose, anticipates the next. We are in the thrall of snow. And, while we missed the two feet predicted 48 hours ago, this winter’s full measure has been enough to send me “up-roof,” as my neighbors say, to see about easing the load on our sun-state-design, shallow-pitched roof.
Up there, I’ve found a stratigraphy of this remarkable geology of snow, in which I read its narrative, even as I remove it. Each storm has its story, which is, in turn pressed down and preserved by the next. This morning, I put in about an hour of shoveling, flinging an estimated 3000 pounds of snow over the edge, where it grew into piles that should remind into May. When I climbed down and went to move the flank of one of those piles, I encountered a familiar metamorphosis. The soft snow I had thrown easily from the roof had set like the whitest concrete; when I did chop some of it free, it came off in dense chunks. The shift from angel snow to construction-grade hardpack had taken less than an hour.
Which got me thinking about transformations. Which got me thinking about avalanches.
A decade or so ago, I was sent a book for review (review appended at the end of this post). I read Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck avidly and with increasing admiration. Fredstone and her husband Doug Fesler (composers of most interesting northern lives) are avalanche experts from Alaska, and her 2005 book distilled their experience and a series of harrowing narratives into a very readable chronicle of moving snow. The book has since become a must-read for many avalanche courses.
What I recalled from the book was the wild variety of snows on offer, and the way it emphasized moving snow’s grip when it comes to rest. What seems a wonderland of sliding can become, rapidly, a hard, gripping reality.
As I’ve read through Thoreau’s 1855 and 1856 winters, while this Winter of ’15 mesmerizes, I’ve noted down its snows. And now in its deepness, I climb to my roof and read its layerings. It occurs to me that I am in the company of Proteus, the shapeshifter; day after day, as I wrestle with him, he keeps changing.
A Review of Snowstruck.
Snowstruck’s chapter three opens with a photo of a long chain of people ascending Alaska’s wintery Chilkoot Pass. Soon the reader learns that everyone in the photo is doing “the Chilkoot Lockstep,” an uphill shuffle to the top of the pass and a chance at joining the 1898 gold rush into Alaska’s Klondike. But a reader who knows snow might be pardoned for wondering what all those people were doing tramping together across a slope that looks distinctly like avalanche terrain. “Seeking fortune,” would be the ready answer, but of course those who seek gold often find hard lessons rather than wealth, and most of these Klondike stampeders found hardship in abundance. Later in the chapter, woe visits in the form of one of history’s deadliest avalanches, wiping out tens of stampeders.
The story of these Klondike aspirants is uncovered by one of Snowstruck’s central characters, snow and avalanche guru Doug Fesler, who also happens to be the author’s husband (their romance is a subplot of this larger love affair with snow). Fesler is digging back through old newspapers to learn more of avalanche history in Alaska (their home state). It is a measure of his and the book’s focus on avalanches that he will closet himself in small, dark rooms to read microfilms about snow sliding a hundred years ago. That he is rediscovering an intimacy of knowledge about the natural world that Alaska’s aboriginal people had casts Fesler (and the author) as valuable anachronisms, albeit ones who use modern analytic tools. They are the ones who remind us in lucid detail of what is lost when we march in lockstep pursuit of wealth and out of right relationship with nature – we might as well be crossing a perilous slope poised to carry us all away.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Mother remembers the Cold Friday very well. She lived in the house where I was born. The people in the kitchen – Jack Garrison, Esther, and a Hardy girl – drew up close to the fire, but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them, close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 11, 1857
If you have visited Thoreau Farm, you can no doubt picture this scene. An assortment of family members and a few servants were huddled beside the large fireplace in our first-floor parlor. They had abandoned working in the kitchen in the salt-box shed attached to the back of the house. Outside the wind whipped across their fields. None of them knew how long they would have to stay here. And if they had to keep building “great fires,” perhaps we should feel fortunate today that they didn’t accidentally burn down the whole house back then.
Every region has its dramatic weather stories. For winter records, New England has the Blizzard of 1978, the Great Snows of 1717, and the Cold Friday of January 19, 1810. (Perhaps the Winter of 2014-2015 will get a fancy name and will be added to the list.)
Thursday, January 18th, 1810 had been an unseasonably warm day. Some spots reported temperatures as high as the 50s and low 60s. But by sunset a line of snow squalls moved into western Massachusetts “with the power and fury of a tornado,” according to one source. “Desolation marked its course.”
Temperatures plummeted as the storm moved from west to east. By midnight, many thermometers were down to zero. On Friday, they dropped to -14, even -20. And those readings didn’t take what we call now wind chill into consideration. Wind velocities weren’t reported then, but they must have been catastrophic. The front brought a sustained “high wind, cold and piercing in the extreme, and of such force as to prostrate many trees and buildings.” Tree trunks were sheared off at various heights. The meeting house in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, was just one of the buildings that lost its roof. The wind and cold abated a bit by Monday, but the rest of January remained frigid.
Cold Friday was tragic enough that it was written about in town histories. In Woburn, Massachusetts, Joseph and Benjamin Brooks had gone to a nearby woodlot to chop wood that Thursday. On Saturday, they were found frozen to death. In Sanbornton, New Hampshire, Jeremiah Ellsworth’s house was torn apart by the wind. He pushed his way against the gale to a neighbor’s house for help, then returned to his own to rescue his wife and three children. The wind tore the children’s clothes right off their bodies. In spite of their best efforts, Jeremiah and his wife lost all three.
While other New Englanders dealt with dire losses of property and lives, the Dunbars and Minots and their friends stayed safe in this two-and-a-half story frame house we now call Thoreau Farm, built in 1730. According to entries in Henry Thoreau’s journal, members of his mother’s generation brought up memories of Cold Friday whenever the winter was particularly cold or snowy. Cynthia Dunbar had been 22 years old back then: still two years away from becoming Mrs. John Thoreau, and seven years away from giving birth to little David Henry.
As we in the Northeast hunker down to experience our own version of cold Friday, perhaps we can take inspiration from Cynthia and the people of Concord in 1810. They made it through the cold, and we can, too. Let’s hope ours isn’t one for the record books.
I’ve just come in from hoisting more snow off the driveway and onto the banks along it. I use the word “hoisting,” because the usual dig-and-fling of shoveling won’t work anymore. Instead I’m now tossing snow back at the sky, which seems to underline the futility of the work.
Whenever Henry Thoreau wants to evoke wallowing snows and winter awe, he turns back to the Great Snow[s] of 1717. Then, in the very month of February, huge, wind-driven snows laid down Buffalonian depths that buried both houses and pastured animals. In “Winter Visitors,” he writes of “that early settler’s family in the town of Sutton, in this state”:
…whose cottage was completely covered by the great snow of 1717 when he was absent, and an Indian found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift, and so relieved the family.
And a little earlier, at the end of “Housewarming,” he returns from being “exposed to the rudest blasts” to this thought:
It would be easy to cut their [humanity’s] threads anytime with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows, but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe.
Both moments in Walden point to the narrow span that we call “normal” and what waits outside it; they make his point amply. But for drifts of detail equal to the snows they describe, we go to his journal, where Thoreau, in turn, records an eyewitness account from Cotton Mather in a December letter from 1717. The letter begins with understatement:
On the twentieth of last February there came on a snow, which being added unto what had covered the ground a few days before, made a thicker mantle for our mother than what was usual.
Okay, we think, big storm atop prior snowfall; we’ve seen the like. But like our current winter with its more than 5 feet of snow for Boston in the past 17 days (ah, the recurring 17), there was more to come:
On the 24th day of the month comes Pelion upon Ossa [see mountainous imagery]: Another snow came on which almost buried the memory of the former, with a storm so famous that Heaven laid an interdict on the religious assemblies throughout the country…The Indians near an hundred years old affirm that their fathers never told them of anything that equalled it.
There follows vivid description of all sorts of snow-burials – cattle entombed, sheep too:
For no less than eight and twenty days after the storm, the people pulling out the ruins of above an hundred sheep out of a snow bank, which lay sixteen foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive…A man had a couple of young hogs, which he gave over for dead, but on the 27th day after their burial, they made their way out of a snow bank, at the bottom of which they had found a little tansy to feed upon.
So, given this ’17 comparison, not so deep for us…yet. When last I checked, we still have “a little tansy to feed upon.” Still, there’s more winter to come.
Added note for those looking for winter words: Mather uses the word “innived” for those animals buried in snow. Just the word for our winter, I think – may your days be enlivened for being innived.
Whenever and wherever I walk I keep an eye out for feathers, though I will say that during blueberry time, I see only those of the blue jay; then, all awareness is aimed at discovery of blue. Many of our birds don’t wear gaudy coats, and so whatever they shed as they fly or flurry is some shade of brown or gray. And so, not easily seen. Until you begin seeing them; then, they turn out to be everywhere. Or at least in many places.
In midstate New Hampshire, where we go to find mountains, we keep a glass of found feathers. Over the years, visitors have also added to this clutch, until the glass has become a sort of aviary, or record of one. But none of us has Sibley-like ability to identify all the former owners of these feathers. Yes, there are the unmistakable – we think – yellow and brown of the cedar waxwing, the ubiquitous jay, and, of course, the flashy cardinal. And the wild turkey, which at times dominates a nearby upper pasture in big flocks, scatters its distinctive feathers liberally, though watching a turkey struggle to be airborne, one would think it had no feathers to spare. At one time, I wanted to gather a small book, a book of feathers, that would help walkers identify the birds who left these feathers on the ground. An artist friend would draw each feather, and we would figure out to which bird it should be reattached, offering a short paragraph and picture of the bird. I’ve settled for our glass record of flight instead.
But many of the solitaries in the glass, (some large flight feathers from hawks or owls I like to think), draw attention not for their former owners’ (imagined) names, but instead for the winter flower they form together. There, curving up and out from their wine glass, is reminder, flower of flight, in the midst of this cold season when we often feel grounded. And in all seasons, these feathers are record of attention as we walk, little findings that draw us deeper into both walk and world. Another sort of flight.
“In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or character of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” Journal, 2/5/55
During some winters, a sub-zero temperature is enough to draw me out – the snow that whines underfoot (even it offers cold complaint); the webbed nose hairs; the downright rarity of it all. Ah, then there’s our current winter, where the high temperature during a recent snow was 2 degrees. And last night, when February’s full moon, the SnowMoon, shone like a huge lamp in the white pines, it was 10 below, when I went out to try for a photograph of its deep blue shadows on our feet of snow.
Our SnowMoon follows early January’s Wolf Moon, which arrived when our ground was nearly bare (remember that?) and the winter felt decidedly unwolfy, a sort of Midatlantic compromise. No longer, of course; we seem into a winter that summons the mythic, and so the wolves are back, their ways lit by this moon in the pines. At least imagination suggested this as I squeaked over the snow and pointed my lens at the tree-framed SnowMoon.
My little camera, unsophisticatedly automatic, like much decision-making technology, caught little more than what looks like a wan light in a pitchy night, though it did amuse me by firing a weak flash of return light each time I pressed the button. All the blue shadows and pathways of pale light go missing in each frame.
Which left only the walk in the cold-crazed air.
Which is, I suppose, as it should be. All the better for listening and wondering:
“My, what a big moon you have.”
“All the better to summon the next snow.”
“And that faint, distant moaning sound?”
“It could be the wind. Or it could be the dogs of night, my dear. The very wolves.”
Ah, company of what once was for a night’s walk under the SnowMoon.
A quiet post for January’s end, in honor, perhaps, of our next and new 6 inches of snow.
As I note from time to time, and as I walk and shovel through this winter, I am also reading through others – 18s 55 and 56 to be precise – in Thoreau’s journal, and in deep January (a thick winter then, as well), I have come upon this:
A journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said. I am occasionally reminded of a statement which I have made in conversation and immediately forgotten, which would read much better than what I put in my journal. It [the statement] is a ripe, dry fruit of long-past experience which falls from me easily, without giving pain or pleasure. The charm of the journal must consist in a certain greenness, though freshness, and not in maturity. Here I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become. 1/24/56
This winter journal is rife with just such greenness and aspiration. Even as it notes a cold that empties the landscape, its pages fan out before the reader, considering the Rig Veda, crow tracks and diet, the citizenship of elms, and the raised effect of walking atop snow:
The snow is so deep along the sides of the river that I can now look into nests which I could hardly reach in the summer. I can hardly believe them the same…Thus we go about, raised, generally speaking, more than a foot above the summer level. So much higher do we carry our heads in the winter. 1/24/56
I especially like Thoreau’s sense of being uplifted, “so much higher,” in deep winter. So different from the trudging slump so many exhibit when the snows add up, it is a sort of “greenness” in winter.
A poem to which I return from time to time is Billy Collins’ Marginalia. Collins writes about margin-notes he’s found over a reading lifetime; one favorite explains a smudge by saying, “Pardon the egg-salad stains, but I’m in love.”
It’s not a book, but the sea’s edge also holds comment, as does the edge of day.
At day’s end I go down to the sea for late January’s added minute or two of light. On this day, the low sun is nested in a slate and pastel backdrop, and the news of the recent coldsnap drifts by as a slurry of near-ice. Tomorrow, the bay will be transformed; it will carry a cloak of ice that will rise and fall with the 9-foot tide. And soon miniature bergs will litter the shoreline, tossed and thrust up by collision and wind; we will look arctic along our edge.
As I watch it the sun also looks for a moment like a smudge, a fingerprint on the sky’s margin. Yes, I love the little added light as night comes on.
I’m in my morning sun-chair, and today, approximately a month after solstice, the sun’s strong enough to wrinkle my brow as it bears in from the southeast. Every so often it slides behind a thin pine; then, ticks later, it’s back, and, faintly, it warms. “It will be long coming,” seems the promise of more light and warmth given, “but it will be.”
It occurs to me that I have a new way of measuring time’s passage. I have a woodsclock. That “clock” is the small stand of white and pitch pines outside my southeast window. As the sun rises along its shallow, winter arc, it slides behind this irregular grouping of trees; their shadows shift bluely over the snow. Today, they began their passage pointing in my direction, fingers of shadow amid shafts of light. Then, as the sun worked across the southern sky, they shifted toward parallel. Finally, now, as late morning comes on, the shadow-digits have begun to point away from me before disappearing entirely as larger trees block the sun’s light.
Time, my woodsclock says, to rise and shift the focus of my day.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Mr. Stewart tells me that he has found a gray squirrel’s nest up the Assabet, in a maple tree. I resolve that I too will find it. I do not know within less than a quarter of a mile where to look, nor whether it is in a hollow tree, or in a nest of leaves. I examine the shore first and find where he landed. I then examine the maples in that neighborhood to see what one has been climbed. I soon find one the bark of which has been lately rubbed by the boots of a climber, and, looking up, see a nest. It was a large nest made of maple twigs, with a centre of leaves, lined with fiber, about twenty feet from the ground, against the leading stem of a large red maple. … There was quite a depth of loose sticks, maple twigs, piled on the top of the nest. No wonder that they become skillful climbers who are born high above the ground and begin their lives in a tree, having first of all to descend to reach the earth. They are cradled in a tree-top, in but a loose basket, in helpless infancy, and there slumber when their mother is away. No wonder that they are never made dizzy by high climbing, that were born in the top of a tree, and learn to cling fast to the tree before their eyes are open.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 22, 1860
Gosh, Henry. I guess early spring would be a decent time to search for nests, especially if you hope to find brand-new offspring. But I prefer mid-winter, when the nests are empty. In fact, I think this is one of the joys of the season. Right before our eyes, Nature has unveiled evidence of random spring and summer residences. Months ago everything was hidden by leaves and shrubbery. Now the curtain has been lifted and we can see back stage. The sight reminds me of a better known Thoreau quote: “The Universe is wider than our views of it.”
These days, I delight in walking and driving around the countryside. I scrutinize each lacy silhouette against the white winter sky, looking for a clump or knot. The first one I noticed was the robin’s nest in our front yard. It lay next to the utility lines, a few branches away from the place where they had built one the previous year. They may have even taken some of the material from the old nest to make the new. But how did it ever stay in place, wedged between only a few young cross shoots? Their engineering skills amaze me.
This cup of interwoven twigs and grasses was vital when it once held a parent bird, eggs, and then nestlings. But it was only necessary for raising the kids. When everyone could fly, they left. Now that architectural marvels like this are open to the wind and to all kinds of precipitation, they’re beginning to fall apart. Eventually they’ll just disappear into the fabric of our local habitat. This is Life. This is Nature.
I spied a tiny nest in my neighbor’s bushy roadside border. Who had lived in it? I wondered. Many of us had walked within inches of it on our way to the grocery store up the block. No one saw it then. Sadly, I suspect that not many of the passers-by see it today, either.
A tall sugar maple down the street stretches itself high across our road. Now we can spot a small nest sitting on one of those overhanging limbs. Every one of us drove beneath a bird family every day without realizing it. What a wonderful sight it is now! But how did those guys ever hang on in a storm?
Then there was my major discovery while raking up leaves in the backyard. Pausing in my task to look up, I saw a large and leafy squirrel nest perched near the top of our white pine. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t photograph well, even though it is clear enough to the naked eye.) These critters sure are smart, building their condo right next to an oak tree that can supply them with an almost endless supply of acorns. Now I know why I’ve seen so many fuzzy gray bodies bounding across our back yard lately. We are co-boarders of this property.
Seeing these nests has led me to consider minimalism. These animals need only a few basic resources to survive. Compare their homes to our own, filled with clutter and crap. Do we really need so much stuff? Probably not.
I suppose we could learn a lot from the birds and the squirrels, and from the other feather- and fur-bearers we share this planet with. All is takes is the sight of an old nest in a tree to get me thinking.
“Skated to Baker Farm with a rapidity which astonished myself, before the wind, feeling the rise and fall – the water having settled in the suddenly cold night – which I had not time to see…a man feels like a new creature, a deer, perhaps, moving at this rate…I judged that in a quarter of an hour I was three and a half miles from home without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille.” Journal 1/14/1855
And that seems just the expansive note to counter winter’s deepness, where often we read and feed our way from afternoon’s light and evening’s dark. Today that deepness burrows in as cold of the nose-webbing, frost-feathery sort. At first light it was 10 below zero, and the rhododendron leaves were curled in tightly on themselves like so many little cigars; the birds were boisterous at the feeder: fill it again, they seemed to say. The snow looked confident in its new blue shadows.
By noon, however, a gray lid had slipped over the sky, and, as I streaked wax on my x-c skis, the light was flat. I would ski down a narrow woods road to the edge of a tidal marsh, and then run along its flank to the tundra of a local golf course, where I would loop back to my start-point. Cross-country skiing, like its cousin, skating, depends upon a mix of traction and slipperiness. On a good day the way the snow crystals impress themselves upon your skis’ waxed bottoms creates just enough bond to allow you to push off; then your ski glides forward over the glassy crystals. And then you press down your ski and kick off a next stride. And a next. When all is well with this subtle bond-and-glide between wax and snow, you fairly float along the surface, warmed by the effort and aware only of the cold by way of the wind you generate in passage.
So too the edged grab then glide of skating (which has, or course, become its own form of x-c skiing, though my skis are the classic sort).
There are, of course, other days, ones of slippery labor, when there’s no bond and you flounder in place. Or there’s so much bond that the snow clumps to your skis and you are reduced to lumpen-footed walking of the most awkward kind – imagine no toes on your six-foot feet.
But let’s live in today’s ease of flotation over snow, traverse this bit of winter borne up on a surface that must be as close as we ever get to walking across the tops of clouds.
“Without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille,” as Henry said.
Not long ago, as winter settled heavily over us, I read in our local paper of a distant snow-story that made me smile. The story featured an avalanche, some snowmobilers and a moose. Not much room for good result with those variables, but here was surprise.
On a Sunday, three men, Marty Mobley, Rob Uphus and Avery Vunichich, set off on a snowmobiling outing some 50 miles northeast of Anchorage Alaska. Enough new snow had fallen to make the men wary of the slopes that rose above. Avalanches, even small ones, move with a speed and power that can outrun snowmobiles (or skiers) easily. As they drove through a pass on their way out, the three men noted a slope marked with both ski and moose tracks.
An hour later, on the way back, they arrived at the same slope and found that it had avalanched. When they saw movement the three men hurried toward it; that movement resolved not as a skier, but as a nose sticking up (barely) from the snow. And that nose was a moose nose.
The three men retrieved their shovels and began to dig. Some minutes later they had uncovered enough of the moose to allow it to move. The moose stood; the men stood back. Then, the moose ambled off.
Imagine for a moment the moose packed in the snow. Avalanched snow sets quickly, firming up like cement; the moose was stored beneath it like an exhibit, but his nose must have scented the three men as they approached and then began to shovel. All those minutes of unnatural nearness until he could rise and resume the usual distance between moose and men.
And imagine the men working their shovels carefully along the sides of the stilled moose; imagine the man who brushed lightly the snow away from the great marbles of the moose’s eyes.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary. … A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, from the essay now known as “Civil Disobedience”
It was a moment of peace and magic. Forty of us stood on the muddy flood plain of the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A woman walked around and blessed us with a smoking bundle of sage. A Native American man drummed and sang. The tones and the smoke called up the memories of the Susquehannocks who once lived in this place. Snowflakes breezed through the air. A bald eagle flew over, as if in silent support. The time felt sacred. The act felt like The Right Thing to Do.
We had come to this site to protest the building of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline. Behind us loomed a large red drill assembly that workers had been operating only minutes before to test the geological make-up of our bedrock. What they were finding was a lot of quartz and schist. This was no surprise to us. Once we arrived and surrounded their implements of destruction, the men shut off the machinery and retreated to their vehicles at the top of the hill. We could see them calling the authorities on their cell phones. We had clogged the process with our whole weight, and without touching anything or anyone. Now we waited for what would come next. It would probably include the appearance of the local police.
This pipeline is still in the proposal stage. But residents along its path have been protesting it for months. The goal of this Oklahoma-based company is to transport tons of natural gas from the fracking fields of northern Pennsylvania to a harbor in the Chesapeake Bay, where it can be exported and sent to other countries. The goals of our community members are to protect the land and our way of life. Carving a 42-inch pipeline through some of the most productive farmland in the country, as well as through conservation land and Native American archaeological sites, seems to be an ill-advised and unnecessary endeavor at best. Especially when no one here – except our governmental officials – will ever benefit from the project. This area includes the most seismically active portion of the state, too. People this morning had been talking about hearing booms and feeling shakes during the last two weeks. Perhaps the earth is already responding to the intrusion.
So far, our efforts have been limited to written and spoken words. I wrote my official protest letter to the Feds before the deadline last fall. I mailed copies to my legislators – all of whom had gotten thousands of dollars’ worth of campaign money from the pipeline company. I wrote a letter to the editor, and it was published in the local newspaper. I joined my township’s protest planning committee. I put an anti-pipeline sign in our front yard. I spoke on the subject at several township supervisors’ meetings. I’ve been lightly involved in the opposition. But apart from the sign in the yard, it’s all been a lot of talk, talk, talk.
Then came the e-mailed announcement, couched in secrecy. It revealed the details of a “non-violent, direct-action event.” We were asked to show up at this exploratory drill site at 9 a.m., to disrupt the work, and to see what happened as a result. We were advised to keep the time and place a secret, so that the workers wouldn’t be tipped off in advance. And the organizers were clear about the risks of arrest. We would be walking on presumed public land, owned by the regional electric company and not posted as private property. But if the police could prove otherwise, we could be arrested. Anyone wanting to avoid the threat of jail could leave the site at any time without harsh judgment from any of the others. But we had had enough Talk. It was time to Act.
I read the message, and I knew I had to participate. I had never done this kind of thing before. But what kind of Thoreauvian would I be if I didn’t stand up for the land and its people, and to simultaneously work to subdue the interests of one single greedy company? I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. I also knew I had to draw the line at arrest. I had a 12:30 p.m. appointment that I had to keep, without fail. I could give the cause my best three hours. I hoped that it was enough.
So there we stood, in the cold and muddy marsh, along with members of the news media, waiting for the police to come. When they did drive up an hour later, the gray-haired chief was nice enough on the surface. He told us that he supported our First Amendment rights and the chance to express our opinions about what we believed in. But we were trespassing on the electric company’s land, he said. We were interfering with the company’s work. He warned us that if we were asked to leave and didn’t, we could be arrested as a result. Our leaders gave him a list of ordinances and issues that we wanted answers to. The chief accepted these papers, then walked back to the top of the hill to talk to the company workers, township representatives, and whatever other authorities he could drum up by phone. We just had to wait.
Our group gathered for a pep talk. Odds were good that arrests would be made when the chief came back and issued his final warning. How many of us were willing to stand firm? Some people quickly raised their hands. A few others looked at their phones and planners, figuring out the importance of the other commitments they had on tap for today. One voice said, “This is just our first work stoppage. There will be more opportunities to do this in the future. Is what we’ve done today enough for now? Or is this one so important that we should go all the way?” He was leaning toward leaving, I could tell. He looked like the kind of guy who could keep a busy schedule.
But another opinion chimed in. “If not NOW, then WHEN?” Murmurs of agreement answered her. In the end, though, we each had to make our own decision. Should we stay or should we go?
When the chief returned after an hour of negotiations, he brought us disappointing news. The permit issues that we had insisted upon didn’t apply to the pipeline company’s work because it was a utility. And the electric company still considered us to be trespassers. I didn’t listen to the rest of his explanations. I quietly turned and walked away, heading down the road to my parked car. Another woman hustled past me a minute later. “Are they arresting people?” I asked, without looking back.
“Yes,” she said.
“I thought they would.”
I got in the car and quickly drove straight back into the Real World, where life and business appeared to have proceeded without interruption from what we had done, demanded, and accomplished this morning. All sorts of feelings surfaced. I was proud to have participated in the protest. But I had twinges of regret about choosing not to be arrested in the end.
I wondered and worried about my fellow protestors for the rest of the day. It turned out that eight of them had been arrested. By early evening, they had all been released and were said to be back home “eating pizza,” our leaders told us. Our story – THEIR story, really – was front page news the next day. The protest had been picked up by the Associated Press and by a variety of environment-related news outlets, too. We were sort of famous, temporarily. I could find myself in the background of some of the photos floating around online. I was glad that I had been there.
What did I gain from this act of modern-day civil disobedience? A lot of self satisfaction in supporting a cause I believe in. A new anti-pipeline button. A small piece of schist-encrusted quartz that I picked up as a memento from the mud near the drill. And the reassuring scent of sage embedded in my winter coat. Still, no arrest record. And yet, after the pipeline company files its official proposal with the Feds in March, we may still have many such “direct-action” challenges ahead of us. I will likely have to make another tough decision on another day. And quite frankly, I’m not sure which way I’ll go. We’ll have to wait and see.
Corinne H. Smith is the author of “Westward I Go Free: Tracing
Thoreau’s Last Journey.” She is at work on “Henry David Thoreau for
Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities,” to be published by Chicago
Review Press in Spring 2016.
“But the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.” – George Packer, The New Yorker Website, 1/7/15
Today’s killings took place where I walked a few weeks ago, and they took place in a city whose openness to such walking is a statement of both charm and conviction. In his post on the New Yorker website, George Packer gets it right, I think. Each day, when I get up and begin again, I need to say, “Je suis Charlie.” To myself, to those I care about, to those I meet.
I suspect that Henry Thoreau, who had the tongue to say it well, would agree.
There’s a story aslant in our local woods, its angles evident to any walker who pauses to consider. A number of the balsams and white pines under 20 feet in height are tipped variously in imitation of the better-known “drunken forests” of the far north. Those trees, living in the soil above permafrost, aim, as their peers world around do, at the sun. But sometimes – more often lately as the far north warms – when the permafrost melts in planes or pockets, the soil above it drops unevenly. And, of course, the trees follow. The treescape then resembles a geometry problem gone wild.
All of this came into focus after a little wondering while wandering the other day. What, I wondered, can be up with all these partially downed trees? The obvious suspect was our Thanksgiving snowstorm, a sullen fall of white cement that did the usual pruning of limbs and outing of power. Such evidence is everywhere in the neighborhood, awaiting spring clean-up. But the tipped trees took a little more thought and sifting of images; when I recalled a photo of a drunken forest, the story came clear.
Our lesser conifers caught the same heavy Thanksgiving snow as their bigger relations, and, as the storm wore on, they bowed before that weight and wind’s additions. Then, under the stress, the little neighborhoods of their root-balls began to give way, pull from the earth. “Root-ball” is really the wrong word for our conifers’ attachments, because it implies depth. Firs in our old glacial lands spread their root-fingers across the forest floor, rather than diving down where nutrients are spare and rocks are plentiful. Maybe root-hands is a better phrasing. And so, until the ground freezes and a locks in their holds on the land, little firs are prone to being partially uprooted, tipped by top-weight.
Just so our nearby drunken woods, now added headache hung over from the “revels” of our holiday storm.
By Corinne H. Smith
“How far the woodpecker’s tapping is heard! And no wonder, for he taps very hard as well as fast, to make a hole, and the dead, dry wood is very resounding withal. Now he taps on one part of the tree, and it yields one note; then on that side, a few inches distant, and it yields another key; propped on its tail the while.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 10, 1853
On the last day of 2014, I went for a winter walk with a friend. It was intensely cold in southern Vermont – too cold for us to walk the long path we preferred, even though no snow covered the ground. Instead, we sauntered briskly around his neighborhood and came back around to stand in front of his home.
He introduced me to one of his neighbors, and the three of us chatted out in the middle of the street. All the while I was distracted by the soft tapping of a woodpecker on a nearby tree. My companions didn’t seem to be bothered by it. They did hear and acknowledge the sound when I mentioned it to them. While they talked on, I scrutinized the tree that I believed the sound was coming from. It was taller than a three-story house, so there was plenty of bark-covered territory to inspect. Still, I didn’t see the bird. Where could it be? I had to know.
Locating a woodpecker is a study in both acoustics and movement. You must both listen and look. I turned away from the human talk to sidle closer to one side of the tree. I examined every inch of its edges, looking for any small silhouetted and bobbing outline. No bird. But the tapping never stopped. It sounded as though someone was constantly worrying a baseball into a worn catcher’s mitt, over and over and over again. Our conversation hadn’t stopped it. And my quiet stalking around the trunk didn’t slow it down, either.
I made it to the other side of the tree and did another surface scan, beginning at the bottom. Finally I caught movement connected with sound, very close to the top. The woodpecker was hanging onto a cross branch that reached high over us. Unlike Thoreau’s bird, this one was focused on just one section of just one limb. It was digging deep for insect food on this cold day. All I could see from ground level was its white and mottled tummy, and the motion of its head and beak attacking the wood.
Now I could point it out to my friend. “Can you see red, or any other identifying marks?” he asked, squinting into the sun.
I didn’t have my binoculars or bird books with me. “No. Just his white tummy, from this angle and distance. Although there are people who could tell you what the species is just by listening to the pattern of the taps.”
“Unfortunately, I am not one of them,” I admitted.
Another neighbor came out for a walk. When she saw that we were all looking up, she pulled her head back to do the same and asked, “What are we looking at?”
“A woodpecker,” I said. I raised my arm and described which branch he was on.
“Oh, yeah, I see it. Nice.” And she power-walked away.
Sure, this woodpecker was easy enough to spot when someone else showed you exactly where he was drilling. I had done all of the work to “find” this guy. I was frustrated at how casual this discovery was for everyone else around me. If the air had been warmer, I would have watched this bird for the better part of an hour. By myself, no doubt.
Maybe woodpecker-watching isn’t just a lesson for the eyes and for the ears. Maybe this little bird is a teacher of humility, too.
“Each town should have a primitive forest where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. All Walden Woods might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles in the north of the town, might have been our huckleberry field. . . . Journal, 10/15, 1859.
Let’s begin the new year with praise for the Commons – what we hold in common, what we hope in common, what we walk in common.
Five or so years ago, I took a walk into our town Commons, a two-hundred-acre stamp of wood- and wetland set aside for wanderings and recreation. Already, after a few years along these trails, I was growing attached to them and to the trees that always awaited me there. So the sound of saws snarling unsettled me; as I walked deeper into the woods, the saws grew louder. Near the heartland of the Commons lies a pitch pine barren, once a common finding in our area, now a rare one. The cutting was going on there, and, as I approached I heard the familiar crack followed by the gathering rush of toppling as a tree went down.
No little outrage quickened my pace. The saws of the world, even here? I said to myself. Even in the Commons?
Here is the moment to remind myself that it’s always good to get the full story before boarding the express to outrage. Here is compression of that story: the cutting in progress aimed at large white pines that had overshadowed their smaller pitch pine neighbors; the Commons were “in succession,” shifting into their next stage. But the pitch pines and their barren were now unusual, deemed worth preserving, and, with some thinning, they would thrive. Okay, I thought, let’s see.
To ring in this new year and celebrate its possibility, I went for a walk in the Commons. The air was sharp, the sky open faced. And in the barrens heartland, the pitch pines rose from the general scrub like columns of gray smoke; then their thick needles poked the sky. The barrens had an expansive feel that infused me with hope for what’s ahead. Here and there, I could see the aging stump of a white pine, and from one I looked aloft, imagining the 80-foot tree that stood there and the way it would have obscured the sky.
The selective cutters had done well, I thought. In one tiny grove, more than 50 pitch pines aimed at becoming full trees; each had been given a chance; a few would become the grove’s dominant trees. And the barrens, with its wide spacing of trees would provide walking reminder of what once was usual in our area.
Our Commons now has its uncommon barren and its common paths, where I and others have a place to wander throughout the coming year. What we hold in common is a place both rare and usual; it is where we often walk to find ourselves.
Best wishes for the Commons of 2015.
Every so often, events, or words, fall and align themselves just so. You may be muddling along amid the little collisions of a day, making a mess of this or that, when you are taken over by a moment of grace, when, after a moment, you look out and say, “that is, or sounds, as it should be.” Part of what has kept me attending to Henry Thoreau over time is his habit of finding and recording such moments; he teaches me to be alert for the same.
And so it was that during a recent holiday drive from family to family, we slipped a disc into the car’s audio system and began to listen to a recorded essay sent my way by a teacher-friend some months before. The silvered disc had been in the car all that time, but I am slow to change habits, and I’d never adopted the one of listening to prose on tape or disc. Slow study, I know. Let’s just say that the delay in listening to Franklin Burroughs read his essay Compression Wood made it all the more pleasurable.
Summarizing Burrough’s essay – 52 minutes in reading – is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to both recommend it and think a bit about a moment early in the piece. Here’s the moment:
“It probably doesn’t make much difference whether you stay home or light out for the territories. Even Thoreau, who strove to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point, often felt, as he said, ‘a certain doubleness, by which I stand as remote from myself as from another,’ and that enabled him to see Concord as though it were a distant land from which he was writing home to a kinsman. Something about writing, or even about the committed kind of reading that is a vicarious form of writing, takes you well away from your life and makes you homesick for it.” – Franklin Burroughs, Compression Wood (first published in The American Scholar, Vol.67, No. 2, Spring, 1998)
Here, of course, is Henry Thoreau, whose spirit runs through the essay even as his name does not reappear. And there is the beauty of the phrased summary of Thoreau’s effort “to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point.” But what compelled me was a full-body feeling of assent that to write or read well, to find your way to some truth, requires moving “well away from your life,” where you can then be “homesick for it.”
Yearning, it struck me, is a fine way to be awake to your life, which vibrates then like a plucked string. Every day when we write or read or walk, we create this distance. And then, with some luck and commitment, we find our way home. This seems a good way to aim toward the new year.
Added note: I’ve provided a link to a podcast of Burroughs essay, which contains a territory expansive and wonderful. It is a perfect companion when you are going somewhere.
Today is short work. That seems appropriate to Thoreau’s 12/21/54 entry on Americans’ love of jest. But what catches my eye as I read through the entry is the paragraph before it; it shines like a mirror of my own thoughts:
We are tempted to call these the finest days of the year. Take Fair Haven Pond, for instance, a perfectly level plain of white snow, untrodden as yet by any fisherman, surrounded by snow-clad hills, dark evergreen woods, and reddish oak leaves, so pure and still. The last rays of the sun falling on the Baker Farm reflect the clear pink color. I see the feathers of a partridge strewn along on the snow a long distance, the work of some hawk perhaps, for there is no track.
“So pure and still.” Yes, and there is also the strew of feathers to remind us of life’s action, of what may fall from the sky. Still, it is time for a walk in the woods.
Those of us who walk the woods prize the sense of solitude we find there, with its expansive chance to breathe and watch without speaking. And yet – also true, I think – we rarely feel alone, in part because we become keen in our tracings of other animals whose prints, feathers and tufts of fur are everywhere. And woods-walkers also develop a heightened sensitivity for movement, especially that on the periphery of vision, where once, (in the old world, and, perhaps, in the new) predators kept track of us. All of that is part of the everyday walking world.
Here, on the other hand, is another sign of presence that is rare and random, yet common enough to make me wonder if you too find it on occasion. Yesterday on my way to local woods, I came upon a small balsam fir. Okay, not uncommon; this is, after all, Maine. But this one twinkled with strings of tiny colored lights, even though it was far enough into the woods to be unlinked with any particular house. And no extension cord ran long yards over the ground to point to such linkage. Easy enough then to conclude that the lights were battery-powered. But whose presence did this sudden holiday tree signal?
The lights winked in the dark woods, growing brighter as the sun slid behind the trees and the early dusk came on. I felt a smile play across my face. Usually, I’m not wild about human announcement of presence in our common woodlands, but here at the winter solstice in diminutive form were reminders of the communal light we share; here were dots of color dressing the dark. They felt like tiny kin to the companionable yellow light cast from the window of a hut on a winter night.
Every once in a while – and that is as often as it should happen – I happen upon some little lights or other ornaments in the woods; they are kin to a quick smile from a stranger passing by in a crowd, reminder of the light side of who we are.
Best wishes to all for the solstice/holiday season.
A recent conversation sent me, as many do, to consider what Henry Thoreau had to say on the matter. The trigger-question was about what separates art from life. Or, put differently, how does an artist integrate her or his art with life? Or vice versa? This is an age-old question, but also one that each generation bumps into. And it seems more pressing with the proliferation of art objects and us. What’s necessary, an artist may ask.
It seems to me that Henry Thoreau saw his life as his primary artistic expression – “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art.” Thoreau sought to be awake to and to affect the quality of each of his days. He deemed being so awake and aware the hardest of assignments.
Yesterday, while I was walking, I mulled the question further. It strikes me that a problem with art is captured by the word “representation.” Thoreau, for example, wrote to represent the experience and experimentation that he sought out every day during his Walden years. But when we pull apart the word, we get re…presentation, or presentation of something again. So, in a representation life is not art, it is instead an attempt to present some of that life again.
I think that Thoreau worked on this question near the end of Walden in his story about the artist from Kouroo. This artist sets out to make a staff – note, it’s not a representation of a staff, but the object itself. The artist’s goal is that the stick be perfect, and he is willing to spend whatever time necessary to achieve that perfection, because, as Thoreau writes, “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” p.326, (Princeton Edition)
As the artist sinks into his work, time disappears, dynasties fall, all of earth’s history passes by. I make of this that the markers – minutes, hours, years, etc. – of usual life vanish. And the artist enters a timeless act of creation. As he works, and whole eras and worlds go by, he concentrates on his staff; his whole life becomes the work.
When he finishes the staff, the artist looks up; everything is different. He is elsewhere. His staff is not a representation. It simply is, as is he.
So, perhaps when we create work in a way that means we “do nothing else in [our] li[ves],” the division between art and life disappears. We are present, as is our art.
There are also Thoreau’s thoughts about “volatile truth” at the top of page 325 in the Princeton Edition. Here’s he’s reflecting on the immediacy of creation and how its “residue,” the leftover language on the page, is inadequate to the moment it sought to capture. This again points to time’s passage as widening the gap between life (lived in the present) and art (re…presentation from the past).
And, finally, here’s a short scene from a recent visit to the Picasso Museum. Perhaps, it’s just me, but I find myself distracted from the art on the walls by the people surging around me; they seem to mimic the art, to take on its characteristics, but in more compelling fashion. Life becomes what I watch; I get separated from it. The distinction between what’s on the wall and what’s around me blurs, the framing gets rearranged. Then, I come to my senses.
At the Picasso
At the reopened Picasso
Museum, bobbing amid the incoming
tide near the man with the out-
sized nose and the woman tipped
sideways by her chest and
every one is breaking up is
about to leave the frame
when I smell the orange and
turn – the woman next to me
peels it idly (like any breaker
of rules); the whole room
rushes back into place.
Sometimes a spate of occurrences becomes confluence. For me, a series of news stories and movies built from older news stories have been that confluence. In language, the two streams flowing together are best caught by two verbs, “survey” and “surveil.” Readers of Thoreau will, of course, see the link in the first word. Surveying landscapes of all sorts was both a living and a habit for Henry Thoreau, and I’m guessing that there were times when his watching made folks in Concord uncomfortable, but not, I think, in the way the intrusive second verb does.
I worry about photos.
It’s not the selfie I worry about; that’s just another form of handprint on the cave wall, runes on the rock, or paint scrawl saying, Kilroy was here. Sometimes I even link such markers with Thoreau’s opening apologia for the lens of “I” in Walden. It’s the other eye that bothers me, the Cyclops of camera peering (mostly down) from light poles, buildings, from the flying-eye drones, or set like a stoic beside the worn path in the woods. Why do we insist increasingly on such peering?
And then, there is the eye staring at me right now from top center screen. Is it off? Should I worry? Last summer, for the first time, I read of a writer who tapes a covering scrap over that eye, goes all Odysseus on it and blinds the beast…every day…just in case. And I looked up after reading, and I began to wonder…
Can you see me now? How about now? Now? I take some comfort in what a dull movie I’d be, what a sleep-inducing study. Still.
When I was a boy, my father became the family photographer, taking thousands of shots of us all. His always-request was that we look off into the distance, away from the camera, and we all grumbled at this posing, even as we waited avidly for the year-end albums that came of his hobby. There was also a mild discomfort in the uncertainty of what would appear when a photo was developed. How would you look? Who would you appear to be?
I recall, at some point, reading of various indigenous people who, when introduced to the camera, refused to have their photos taken because they felt the image-taker would steal their souls. There seemed to be a sliver of sense in this fear, not that soul would be stolen, but that it would be exposed. And later, as I began to take my own photos and looked especially at the portraits of Walker Evans and other “Depression-era—photographers,” I understood that exposure was the point. Catching people in ways that let light into the darknesses of their (and our) lives was the aim. I wondered then if this was a sort of stealing.
But all of this usual sort of photography was in service of memory – “Remember when…” No one was being recorded to control his or her behavior; no one was being surveilled.
Not so today, as recent revelations about broad habits of surveillance have made clear. This posting could now aim into the murkiness of CIA and corporate surveillance; it could consider the tension between freedom and safety. Surely my viewing of Citizenfour has intensified that thinking. I’m guessing I’ll go in that direction soon, just not today.
Instead, I’ll go (with Henry) to the woods, where my habit of looking for lions shapes my mind and walking. To be clear, I know there are no lions (yet) in my daily woods, so this column heads into territory I hear of daily via the Internet. It considers the famous LA-area lion, P-22. Here’s a recent headline: “P-22 coughs up a hairball from the deer he’s eating.”
Caught at his meal by a trailside cam, P-22 stands, I think, for all of us being surveilled unaware, unblinkingly. Instead of walking our way to a fleeting sighting with its awakening frisson of closeness, we have bland recording; we have a hairball that must be hacked back up. Are we meant to see in such a monotonous, unblinking way? Without the effort of walking there? Should we too be seen this way by the lenses now everywhere in our lives?
As noted earlier, I feel ambivalent about the invasive nature of much photography, even as I look at its pictures with a sort of wonder and hunger to know. But what I’m certain I can’t sign onto are the unannounced lenses of an always-looking world, whether they are posted trailside or borne by drone overhead. I don’t like the certainty that I am always being framed even as I can’t see the framing eye. I like to walk to outlooks from which I can look out, survey a slice of the world. I don’t like the feeling that, as I walk, I am being surveilled.
Words Over Water
The appointed time approaches. I am, I think, set. My notes are aligned before me; books I might need are at hand; I’ve changed from sweatshirt to collared one; my computer-camera is aimed my way, its mic amped up. And the sign we bought as this house’s first purchase will appear in the upper-left quadrant of the screen. SIMPLIFY, it says. Say it twice to make it quotation. A sign…and a command. Something to live up to. Nice touch, I think.
An odd underwater sound, like air escaping from a submerged shoe, signals the start; I click the phone icon, and there in dark forms they are – my class. I think that phrase to myself, adding a question mark. I know one person in the room. The rest are there, I suppose, for the myriad reasons that bring us all to our commitments, largely to commitments made for us.
Some 3500 miles away, it is 4:30 in the afternoon, and outside the sun is leaving the city streets. Wine and cigarettes must issue a siren’s call. Here, I’m pressing into late morning, and our short sun is working on what little December warmth it can conjure. Coffee is still ascendant.
As ever, I think, noting that my eyes look squinty, my face puffy on the small embedded screen on my desktop. We are not made to be photographed by a camera looking up as gravity pulls us down.
But, having settled the lights in their Paris classroom and greeted each other, we say it’s time to begin. Here, I say silently, comes Henry, and I begin limning some of Henry Thoreau’s subtractive practices I’ve thought through during the past few days. “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art,” he wrote in Where I lived and What I Lived For. And a page later, he pounded twice on the nailhead of advice: “Simplify, simplify.” And then, a little later, for those resistant (or asleep) among us, he offered the repeating rumble-stroke of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
“That ought to suffice,” he might have said, laying down his hammer/pen and imagining us, his readers. “They should get that, at least.”
And, of course, they do get this pruning of life to its “necessaries” to make room for the work chosen, for the I-work of becoming and making.
As I talk and lay out a sketch of Henry Thoreau’s move to and “experiment” at Walden Pond, I begin to sink into the familiar rhythm of story and teaching. I read some more of Henry’s words, offering paraphrases on the side as I travel a good deal from line to line; I pause and scan the room before me. Teaching makes me alive to how Thoreau’s words may sound for others, what they may mean. But every so often, motion draws my eye outside the borders of the screen – birds arc toward the backyard feeder; a woodpecker hammers at a pine; the squirrel is back eyeing the feeder; I suppress the urge to chase. Good dog.
Strangeness settles over me. I was going to write, “an estranged feeling settles over me,” but that isn’t so. The familiar book, the voicing of tentative understanding, of question, the partly-visible audience in dark relief on the screen.
I ask a question and watch the familiar scene of students turning to each other to see who will speak – I’m at home in two places.
By Corinne H. Smith
In November 1860, Henry David Thoreau walked around the neighboring town of Boxboro to inspect an old-growth woodlot owned by Henderson Inches. He was fascinated by the oldest oak trees he had ever seen. He made two separate trips in eight days and did a lot of trunk measuring. “I can realize how this country appeared when it was discovered,” he wrote on November 10th. “Such were the oak woods which the Indian threaded hereabouts.”
The oldest tree I ever met was a craggy and shaggy sycamore that lived a few miles from my childhood home. Our Girl Scout troop visited it once, probably in the late 1960s. We were told then that it was either the oldest or the largest tree in the state. Or was it the country? I forget. I remember that its arms stretched over the front yard of a farmhouse that was otherwise surrounded by cornfields. One huge branch almost touched the ground. We could have climbed up and sat on it, but we were warned against doing so. Someone was worried that the branch would break off under our weight. Being an avid tree climber myself, I was disappointed. The tree was great to look at. But I longed to clamber over that one branch and to sit among its massive leaves for a while. I would have been careful. I wouldn’t have broken it.
Fast forward, forty years. Now most of the cornfields are gone from this area. They’ve been replaced by a four-lane highway, strips of businesses and eateries, and a road leading to the Old Sycamore Industrial Park. It’s ridiculous. I feel a sense of indignation whenever I pass by the intersection.
I voiced this opinion to a childhood friend recently, as he and I were riding along the main road. “It’s too bad that the only legacies left of the tree are its name and its picture on that stupid sign,” I said.
“What are you talking about? The tree’s still there,” he said.
“No, really? I assumed it had fallen down or had been plowed under.”
We made a quick turn onto Old Tree Drive, passed a few faceless facades of warehouses, and then turned left into a small parking lot. Sure enough, there they both still stood: the farmhouse and the sycamore tree. I was amazed. The developers had chosen to leave them alone.
And yet: time and circumstances had aged the tree a great deal. Fresh leaves showed that the tree was still alive, but much of its main trunk had deteriorated and was missing. It seems never to have grown straight up toward the sky. Instead, it grew out and across the yard. The low main branch I remembered was now supported by a short post, and part of it had long settled on the ground. The higher main branch also rested on a large support timber. This sycamore was an even older man now, receding and wasting away, needing crutches. But it was still hanging on; still taking in carbon dioxide and giving us fresh oxygen in return. Thank you, Tree.
In the days that followed, I grew curious about this sycamore. Was it the oldest or the largest, within any political boundaries? I did some brief research. A contributor to a 1944 state tree book called “Penn’s Woods, 1682-1932,” said that this one was ‘Pennsylvania’s Most Massive Tree.” Local newspapers occasionally ran stories about the tree, but the articles didn’t include any accolades. I clicked on some web sites that documented the oldest or biggest trees in the country and in the world. But no one had yet registered “our” sycamore on these species lists. And I didn’t have any numbers to make accurate comparisons. So I did what Henry David Thoreau would have done. I went back to the site outfitted with a tape measure, a camera, a notebook, and an assistant.
We measured the girth – or, what remains of it – at 25 feet around. The low branch is about 70 feet long and is generally about 7 ½ feet in circumference. We can estimate that its age is somewhere in the 300-350 year range, taking it back to a time when this place really WAS part of Penn’s Woods and was merely a colony. I registered the tree on an international Monumental Trees web site. According to the lists assembled there, this one may not be the oldest or the biggest sycamore tree in Pennsylvania. One in Lansdowne may beat it out by 100 years.
Our sycamore may not be an award winner or a “witness tree,” but it has witnessed quite a lot. We can be proud of its history and its stamina, and we can admire it for as long as it is able to live with us. And yes, I still desperately want to climb over that low branch. I haven’t … yet.
(Thanks to Paul Martin, Jr., for his help in this rediscovery.)
No, I’ve not been soaking in Walden water, or any other water, as our winter comes on, but I have been re-immersed recently in Henry Thoreau’s words. Prompted by an invitation to explain Thoreau’s experiment in living to 20 graduate students at Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastique (IHEAP) in Paris, I’ve returned to Walden, and, as always happens when I reread this deeply familiar book, I’ve been amazed by its insights and universality.
At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the “seminar” that lies ahead this week. Not only will it be via SKYPE, not for me a familiar way of being with others, but the group of artists from around the world I’ll be working with reportedly have only the slightest sense of who Henry Thoreau was. And, as added complexity, a number of them will be working in a 2nd language.
How to bring Henry into sharp and real focus in our 90 minutes?
IHEAP’s focus for this year’s program is a help: soustraire, or subtraction, as method for and in support of creativity and art is the year’s theme, and I’ve found it a fine lens for looking at Henry’s Walden experiment. After all, Walden is all about subtracting the usual or familiar from life in pursuit of awakening and then adhering to the real, and Thoreau, crucially, has to subtract the expected self in favor of finding a real self.
Hmmm…I’ve just reread the last sentence and found myself saying, “show me what you mean.”
Okay, here’s example: Henry Thoreau, possessor of exceptional physical and mental vitality, and – very rare for his day – a college education, would have been expected to be a central figure in Concord. He became just that, but not in the way local society would have imagined. Rather than becoming a “select” man of the town, at 27 Henry decamped for a nearby pond and set up solitary living. “What’s that Henry (or David) Thoreau up to?” many must have muttered. Added to that consternation was Thoreau’s determination to become a writer. “He’s gone off the tracks,” more than one Concordian must have declared. And indeed he had (as well as going off on the tracks, but that’s a pun only Henry would like.)
What more did Henry subtract from his life so that he might develop his insights and art? Here’s a partial list of identities not pursued or subtracted: husband, father, teacher, householder, pillar of town society, rich man, majority member, all-day worker, church-goer, elected official.
And what subtractions might you add to this list? Or remove from it?
Thinking of creativity and art as subtraction has been fascinating; it is, among other things, another application of Thoreau’s famous advice: “simplify, simplify”; it is also acknowledgement that we are in need of less rather than more in this age of surfeit.
I’ve resisted the obvious, but in the end I’ve found it impossible, and so here is a short piece about Monet and Thoreau. There are many shared affinities – water, light, immediate Nature – but the catalyst for me has been a painting Monet did in 1882.
I first saw Église at Varengeville at a small museum during a recent sojourn in Paris. A few days earlier, we had, as seems appropriate for such a viewing, walked a number of miles to reach The Marmottan, another small museum not far from the Bois de Boulogne. There, we had eased through rooms of paintings Monet left to his son, who, in turn, left them to the French people. Unlike the crowded center-Paris museums with their famous Impressionist stock, this old house of a museum had only a few visitors. At one point I found myself alone in an oval room, surrounded by paintings of plants from Monet’s Walden in Giverny; no one else breathed; the air seemed to quiver with color and light.
All of this brought us to the Luxembourg Gardens museum, where I was again amid throngs. Perhaps you have this experience too, but I find myself distracted by people in museums – I often end up spending more time watching people looking at paintings than I do looking at the art itself. I think of it as the “ert” watching the inert, or the other way around.
Anyway, amid the crush, I reached three paintings labelled “Effet du Matin,” and the mention of morning and its effects rang, as it always does, the little Thoreau bell in my mind. I began to study Église at Vargengeville, and then, even given light jostling, I was alone in its colors and light.
The church sits atop a high cliff that falls to what seems to be ocean, and it – the church – looks like a hat sizes too small for the cliff it tops. That stone is the painting’s real subject, I think, and it is alive with morning light, its streaks of color rising from what looks like kindled flame at the painting’s base. The eye is drawn to the cliff and lifted; the heart is uplifted too.
That seems the effect of light in this best season of the day, the time of awakening. Even after we left the museum, I kept returning to Effet du Matin, just as, given a morning mind and luck, we see fresh light each day.
By Corinne H. Smith
I eased through a birthday last week. I say it this way because I didn’t celebrate the occasion. This year didn’t carry a momentous number ending in 0 or 5. And once you hit the half-century mark, you have no need for fanfare. No reason to get dressed up and have a party with school friends, with a big birthday cake and candles and a rousing game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, like we did way back when I turned seven. It’s now just a day like any other. I was determined not to play it up.
Then again, I allowed Facebook to out me. The quick online greetings started early. I ignored them as best as I could and logged off to go to my job at a used bookstore. One of my co-workers came in later with a strange expression on her face.
“Did Facebook lie to me this morning, or is today your birthday?” she asked.
I nodded. “Today is my birthday,” I admitted.
“Then I have a small birthday present for you,” she said. She handed me a candy bar. It was the exact brand and size that she has seen me nibble on every workday for a year and a half. It was the perfect present. I thanked her for this considerable generosity.
Truth be told, I had already gotten quiet birthday wishes at work the previous day. They came as I was cataloging a book. I opened the front cover and a card fell out. I’m used to this happening. People leave all sorts of items behind in donated or abandoned books: bookmarks, receipts, subway tickets, postcards and such. This greeting card had on its cover a painting of a bluebird in front of a forsythia bush. The scene was bright and almost too colorful and Spring-like for this all-brown November day. “Especially for You On Your Birthday,” it read. Coming into my hands within 24 hours of my own anniversary, this card seemed to be meant for me. Inside was written the name of the previous owner (who is now deceased, I know) as well as the signature of the friend who had sent him this card. I couldn’t return it to its original receiver. I didn’t know who the sender was. I felt only slight remorse at commandeering the card. I slipped it into my bottom drawer so that I could take it home.
At the end of the day, when I walked into my kitchen, I put the card on the table next to my two others. I had gotten these through the mail from long-distance friends. One was funny, and the other one was nice and heartfelt. Both reflected well the people who had sent them. They made me smile.
I looked at this third card and wondered if I should have just dropped it into a recycling bin. It was pretty enough. But it was too flowery for my style and too much like an old-person’s card. I am not an old person. I wouldn’t have given this card to anyone. And I would have shrugged it off as a mistake if one of my actual friends had seen fit to send me one like this.
To keep, or not to keep? I opened the card again. This time I saw a small paragraph on the bottom left that I had missed seeing earlier. It defined the picture on the cover. “Eastern Bluebird. The bluebird ‘carries the sky on its back,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau.” Now I laughed out loud. I didn’t have to read the rest of the description. I knew that this card had come directly to me from Henry. What other explanation could there be? It’s a keeper. Thanks, Henry.
Though far from Henry’s or our own woods, we keep seeing or hearing things or moments that nonetheless summon him to mind. The most recent is a reported sighting on the outskirts of Paris. First tabbed as a tiger on the loose (from where seemed uncertain), the Paris cat has now been downgraded to unknown feline, even as any number of gendarmes continue to search for him/her.
Still, a grainy photo and clear set of prints suggest something beyond an overweight tabby – estimates of the cat’s size, based on its tracks, range between 100 and 150 pounds. Enough cat to get your attention, bien sûr.
This photo provided by the town council of Montévrain on Thursday shows what was initially described as a tiger. Credit via Associated Press
Thoreau, of course, lived in a landscape shorn of its large carnivores, but, as his writing make clear, he was an avid tracker of wildlife. And his readings of these signs fired his imagination; they helped him see and write about a narrative world.
An American, who when home follows closely the reported tracks and resurgence of our native lions, I naturally have been keeping track of the Paris cat. My native New England is rife with lion-rumor these days, and I figure to see one there during my lifetime. The suburbs of Paris are older ground, however, and so this visit from the wild has had people and news outlets agog – schools with armed guards, people told to stay indoors, car doors locked, various experts quoted.
And the course of response has taken a predictable route too. Something akin to panic has morphed into brow-raised cynicism even as the cat has been assigned more usual proportions.
But the avid attention speaks also of a hunger Henry Thoreau knew too – the wild is a tonic and a hope – an I’m guessing that any number of us following the story hope the Paris cat will vanish into the countryside, where we will imagine he lives on, even as we await his next visit.
I begin this post at the edge of the woods…and with some trepidation. It’s not the trees that cause pause; rather, it’s writing about the Frank Gerhy-designed arts center that appears to have landed beside the Bois de Boulogne just outside the city limits of Paris. In short, I am writing a long way from the 10’ X 15’ house that contained Thoreau’s examined sense of necessity and architecture pond side at Walden. And, as if to double the danger, I’ll be writing about La Fondation Louis Vuitton named for the maven of a focus on and sense of fashion that would surely not find its way to approval in Henryland.
Still, there seems to be more than a fragile link between the ways in which Henry Thoreau and Frank Gehry imagined space. So.
Upon approach I see a ship – of the air? washed in from the sea? – apparently at rest. Its curved, glassy sides look as if they have been opened for airing after a long voyage; it looks also like approaching the nose of a huge and complicated blimp that is powered by sails.
As is often true when you go to see sensation, we join the queue that straggles back beyond the sign that promises a 30-minute wait. Still, on this transparent day with temps in the 50s, our queue-mates are in good moods, and a number of languages rises companionably above the line. I toy with a usual fantasy – is this the crew selected for lift off? Are these the ones with whom I’ll leave this world for whatever’s beyond it? I’m sure the ship-like image of the building and our line’s position right beneath one of its exfoliated, glass sides nudge my mind in that direction. I am, in many senses, a long way from home. And I am nearing the head of the line.
Thoreau too liked to inhabit houses of the mind, creative spaces whose “rooms” often soared. There is the famous “big house,” imagined over pages in Walden (see quotation below). And there is the Spaulding Farm in his essay Walking. Both of these conjured structures featured big space for Thoreau’s large dreams and ideas. Sometimes, I’ve felt that Walden itself is a big house that the reader is asked to leave on his last morning of reading.
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head…A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest… Walden
But back to the Bois: As noted earlier, the Vuitton Center looks like a landed ship – from the air or the sea. It’s glassy surfaces seem so many fins or wings partially deployed and at rest…temporarily; it seems immense – it is. We pay our Euros and make our way into a soaring lobby that features a thirty-foot tall rose. It’s not often (never?) that I have walked out into a building, but that’s the feeling I have now: I feel as if I am leaving this world for another, perhaps only to see this world more clearly when I get out there.
Okay, I think, prepare for an outsized experience. And now, once in the “ship,” even though approach has been to strangeness, I feel good, embarked on adventure. The building/ship has a core and a purpose – its 11 galleries display art in various forms and narratives and, somehow they are never crowded – height has something to do with this. But for me, the deepest pleasure lies in walking up various stairwells and corridors and ramps with openings and sky always happening or materializing around a corner. I feel lifted off, transported.
Architecture doesn’t affect me in this fashion often, but this “ship” does. I want to return when it’s storming to see how it sheds water and furrows on into the sky.
For me November has always brought the advent of sight’s season, especially in the woods; often, what has been hidden by leaves – a burl, a nest, an old sign – comes clear. And the long-boned outlines of the land also appear. Then, there is the thin transparency of November’s light; on a cloudless day, it is the clearest glass. Yes, the span of daylight is short, but vision’s length and depth more than compensate for that.
The other day, I was poking around in Thoreau’s November Journal writings, figuring that he too might have found revelation in the month’s light, when I came upon this:
Day before yesterday to the Cliffs in the rain, misty rain. As I approached their edge, I saw the woods beneath, Fair Haven Pond, and the hills across the river, — which, owing to the mist, was as far as I could see, and seemed much further in consequence. I saw these between the converging boughs of two white pines a rod or two from me on the edge of the rock; and I thought that there was no frame to a landscape equal to this, — to see, between two near pine boughs, whose lichens are distinct, a distant forest and lake, the one frame, the other picture. In November a man will eat his heart, if in any month. Journal, 11/1/52.
A different sort of November day, to be sure, but no less lovely in its grays and greens and browns. Here too was Thoreau in the museum of his vision, finding “frames” for the “pictures” hung liberally there. He walked his woods with no less reverence than the slow, heel-clicking strides of museum-goers as they cross polished stone floors and contemplate painters’ visions.
But what stopped me was the final sentence in this passage – what does it mean to eat your heart? And what in November might incline one that way?
It’s common enough to say “Eat your heart out,” when we think we have something others want. Well, okay, but envy seems unrelated or a small reading of Thoreau’s sentence. Somehow, I thought, it is the unequaled nature of the “frame” that triggers his observation. And the image of Thoreau stopped near the edge of the Fairhaven Cliffs, looking at this loved landscape came clear to me. There he was, and here I was, looking through his eyes at a landscape hung just so; here, contained by the lichened boughs, was the best world, a world to swell your heart.
For a while I could live on that expansive vision, in that framed, chosen world. Perhaps feeling such affectionate surplus is what it means to eat one’s heart.
But you may see through other eyes, see it otherwise. If so, let us know.