The Roost


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”

There Was An Artist…

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, and 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.

 

Acrobat - Pablo Picasso

The Acrobat, Picasso, 1930.  My favorite piece.

 

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.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden


Eyed

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?

Always Eye

Always Eye

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.

Here's Looking at You

Here’s Looking at You

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.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Walden


Teaching @ Distance

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.

image_1

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.

image

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Once More to the Old Tree

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.

sycamorepark

“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.

sycamore1

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.

sycamore4

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.)

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December Immersion – from Walden to Paris

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.

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Effet du Matin

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.

image1

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.

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Bluebird Birthday

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.

bcards2014

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.

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Le Grand Chat

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.

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@ le Bois (de Boulogne)

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.

 

Upon Approach

Upon Approach

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.

Waiting to Board

Waiting to Board

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.

Up the Stairs to the Sky

Up the Stairs to the Sky

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.

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Season of Sight Season of Heart

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.

Tree-framed November Light at Walden

Tree-framed November Light at Walden

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.

Tree-framed Cardigan Mountain - heartland

Tree-framed Cardigan Mountain – heartland

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.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote


A Thoreauvian Artist in Amsterdam

By Corinne H. Smith

You never know when or where you will meet another fan of Henry David Thoreau. Even if the person may be long gone and may have left only a few clues behind.

In my part-time job at a bookstore specializing in art books, I recently came upon a unique catalog from 1965. It consisted of black-and-white illustrations of artwork by an artist named Viktor IV. I had never heard of him, and we certainly didn’t have any other books about him. From what I could tell, he then lived in Amsterdam and created unique pieces out of wood and other materials. This was a small and quirky publication that was probably self-published. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought too much of it. But the three-line dedication at the top of the opening page took me by surprise:

viktorwords

What? Wait. Who WAS this guy? I had to do some online research to find out.

Viktor IV was the professional name of New York-born artist Walter Karl Gluck (1929-1986). As a young man, he traveled around the world before settling down in Amsterdam in 1961, with the intent of being a photo-journalist. It is said that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy had a profound affect on him. He immediately decided to become a full-time artist instead of a photographer. After he made a collage based on the assassination, he renamed himself Viktor IV. He set up his studio and home on a small ship docked in one of Amsterdam’s waterways. And he soon became one of the art community’s notable characters. People got used to seeing him riding his painted bicycle or walking around the city, in bare feet and dressed all in black, with wild white hair and a bushy beard, looking for inspiration.

Viktor at Home

Viktor at Home

Viktor’s early art was created from driftwood and other found pieces in the river. He assembled decorated wooden panels that he called “ikons.” But he didn’t limit himself to small creations. He also put additional structures like extra masts, towers, and rafts on and around his ship. As long as he didn’t block the entire waterway, he was free to add to it as he pleased.

Throughout his life, Viktor kept a set of artist journals filled with writings and drawings. He later developed these into thousands of individual pieces of artwork. When Viktor eventually became intrigued with time-keeping, he devised what he called “Bulgar Time,” and designed a clock to run backward. You can see a virtual example of the clock on his web site at http://www.viktoriv.nl/en/home.html. It’s a tad disconcerting at first to watch the hands move the wrong way, but it’s fun.

Sadly, Viktor drowned one day while making underwater adjustments to his flotilla. He had gotten tangled in the ropes beneath his ship. He was 57 years old.

Reports say that the two people who were the biggest influences in Viktor’s life were Dutch painter Anton Heyboer and American writer Henry David Thoreau. He read “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” at some point in his youth. How Henry led Viktor specifically to Amsterdam is not spelled out in the brief bios I read. What IS clear is that Viktor IV followed his Different Drummer, and he found his own Walden. He discovered not only where he needed to be, but what he needed to do in life. This Thoreauvian lesson attracts both the heart and the head.

Maybe today Viktor and Henry are floating in a boat somewhere, looking for driftwood, nodding to each other, and laughing about time running backward. Good for them.

 

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After the Hawk

By Ashton Nichols

I have a sad story to tell today. It is about one of those red-tailed hawks that I have written about in an earlier piece on The Roost, perhaps; or, perhaps not. Not so long ago, I was out in the locust and pine woodlot behind Creekside, and I saw a splash of brown and white against the green of the grass underneath one of our largest pine trees. Pine needles littered the ground, but this different brown stood out, a deep burnished color set off by the white lines that surrounded it. As I drew closer it was clear: this was a hawk, a dead hawk, and a big one, lying under the pine tree with his wings splayed and his head cocked to one side, unnaturally crooked as though he had tried to look too far behind him. A red tail.

“He is so beautiful,” I thought to myself and, since I was alone, there was no one to talk to in any case. What can I do? I knew it was a Federal offense to possess even the dead carcass of a raptor. These birds are so valuable as species, and especially as consumers of carrion, that even American citizens can only report dead raptors and then let the Department of Natural Resources take over. Otherwise, we would be awash in the bodies of small, dead mammals, rodents of all kinds: rats, and mice, and voles, and more. But then I remembered something else: Dickinson College, where I teach, has permits–both state and federal–that allow for the obtaining raptor specimens, as long as they will be used solely for educational purposes. Of course, what else would I use this hawk for? Not just to sit on my mantel like a hunter’s trophy. Not just to hide away in a private collection of once-living specimens. Here was a beautiful creature, dead now for who knew what reason, and starting to rot back into the ground unless I intervened. So I did.

I got a large plastic trash bag and spread my hands wide on both sides, lowering the bag down over the body of the hawk. I picked him up, and I thought for a moment that he moved, but then I checked his eyes–one was clouded, the other one was closed–and so I was assured that he had breathed his last breath. (I keep saying “he” in full knowledge that I do not know his gender; sexing birds is very difficult, primarily because their sex-organs, such as they are, are all internal, and they are very often very hard to see and even harder to determine). As fast as I could I got him to our out-building, a large nineteenth-century, chimneyed structure that was used as the summer kitchen back in the day when Creekside was built. Once there, I placed him in the refrigerator’s freezer, closed it tight, and called Dickinson to make sure that I had access to our permits.

I did have such access, and several weeks later I contacted the best taxidermist in South-Central Pennsylvania to help me out. We met and made a plan, and he took the hawk and placed it into his own freezer until he had sufficient time to work on it. Birds are perhaps the most difficult of animals to stuff, primarily because of their feathers, evolutionarily adapted scales–from their lizard-skin days–that often “slip” when even the slightest bit of rot has begun to decay the cells around the follicle. The follicle is a small cavity, just like the one that holds your individual hairs into your head, but in a hawk’s case the follicle keeps the feathers from falling out. The taxidermist assured me that I had gotten him into my freezer in time, and he would make a fine mounted specimen. At least, that is what the taxidermist said.

Several months later I had my result, and here he is:

HawkStanding

He is as beautiful a specimen as you will ever see, stuffed in the perfect way that makes me worry–and ask my students–about why it is that human beings like to take dead animals, return them to a lifelike condition, and then display them as though nothing has ever happened to them, as though they are still alive. I have been to natural history museums from New York to Naples, from Philadelphia to Florence, from London to Bologna, from Edinburgh to Rome and, in all of these settings I have wondered what it is that causes humans to track down these creatures, capture and kill then, and then finally display and exhibit them as though all of them are still among the living creatures on the planet.

I have no definitive answer to these questions. “I have killed and mounted this creature, so I am in control of its life,” is, of course, the most obvious answer. In colonial settings, we might say that every colonizer wants to say, at some level, “Look at what I have done; I have gone to the wilds of Africa [or Asia, South America, or the Arctic realms], and I have brought back these creatures and dominated them to such an extent that I can show them off to you now in a mighty civilized city.” But perhaps such an explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps we all collect, and kill [I work hard never to kill], and then display these creatures simply out of a desire to know them, a desire to possess, not out of greed, but out of a longing for knowledge, a longing for understanding. If I have this creature, then I am a part of this creature’s world. “I want to know you,” we seem to be saying; “I want to know you as well as other members of your species, and other species around you, know you.”

“Let me into your world,” we seem to be saying; and here is as close as we can ever get:

HawkClose

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Redwoods Abroad

It’s been said that Henry Thoreau would walk miles to visit a tree, and, over time, I’ve come to understand the lure of arboreal friendship and walking for it. The tree, after all, can’t come to me. There’s a large white pine I like especially at the bend of a trail that descends from the Andromeda Ponds behind Walden toward Fairhaven Bay; I run my hand across its rough bark at each passing.

The other day, during a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens, my eye was drawn to two large trees – conifers of some sort, they looked decidedly foreign in this setting, and, even given good size, they looked young. I bent to read the small sign by the path side and found they were sequoias. And that, of course, set me to wondering how two redwoods had arrived in the middle of Paris.

Well rooted

Well rooted

 

Not long after I’d begun this wondering, I’d learned that there are redwoods all over Europe, the largest of which is Scottish and now reaches some 54 meters into the air. It is said to be “growing quickly.” Europe’s redwoods don’t yet match the sky-scratching height of our tallest trees out west, where a sequoia named Genesis rises 86.2 meters to the current record, but after only 160 or so years, they are on their way. The temperate U.K. and Belgium and France seem favored locales for redwoods in Europe.

What also caught my attention was the timing of an apparent enthusiasm for planting these monumental trees. The largest of the lot date from the 1850s, a time when, an ocean away, Henry Thoreau was traveling a good deal in Concord to visit woody friends of his own.

Discovered only in 1852 in California, the giant sequoia rapidly became a tree-to-have in English Gardens, which were fashionable in the 2nd half of the 19th century throughout much of Europe. The gardens, influenced by Romanticism, had intentionally wild sectors to them, and the sequoia came from the wild Americas. That it promised also to be monumental seemed in keeping with a European mindset.

 

Looking up in the Luxembourg Gardens

Looking up in the Luxembourg Gardens

Whether Thoreau paid much attention to this woody discovery and its hopscotch migration eastward, isn’t clear. His journal doesn’t attend to the June 27th, 1853 felling of a huge sequoia (reportedly over 300 feet high and 1,224 years old) in California – a media sensation; eventual fallout from it and other cuttings helped lead to John Muir (who lionized Thoreau) and the 1872 founding of the park at Yosemite, and then on to the national park system.

It seems that, faithful to Concord and his local focus, Thoreau spent his time and ink thinking about trees he knew.

But Thoreau does mention the sequoia in the writings that became Faith in a Seed:
“What would Pliny and Evelyn have said of that eighth wonder of
the world, the giant sequoia of California, which springing from so
small a seed (the cones are said to be shaped like those of a white
pine, but to be only two and a half inches long) has outlasted so many
of the kingdoms of the world?
If we suppose the earth to have sprung from a seed as small in
proportion as the seed of a willow is compared with a large willow
tree, then the seed of the earth, as I calculate, would have been
equal to a globe less than two and a half miles in diameter, which
might lie on about one-tenth of the surface of this town.”

Almost every day during this sojourn, I walk over to see the two sequoias. Still in their youth – I estimate they are 20 to 25 meters tall – already they have begun looking down at many of their elders; it won’t be long before they see much of Paris. It’s good to make new friends.

Thanks to Corinne Smith for unearthing the quotation from Faith in a Seed.

Sky-scatcher

Sky-scratcher

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In Place or Out

“I try one of the wild apples in my desk. It is remarkable that the wild apples which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields and woods, when brought into the house have a harsh and crabbed taste.” Journal 10/27/1855

Wild Apples Out There

Wild Apples Out There

Today, we drive south, board a bus, wait some, then board a plane, sit some, sit some more, doze (we hope) through compressed night, rise and deplane, find a taxi, emerge at the steps of an apartment far from our home in Maine. That catalogue of travel doesn’t read as attractive, but this is a long planned for and sought trip, a month of residence in another place, and its point is similar, I think, to Thoreau’s in his journal entry above. If we will taste the spirit and raciness of a place, we must be there. Trying to import that place to Maine won’t work.

Or put a little differently: when we import much of our lives, we don’t live them in place. But when we go to a place, we can go there to live, to eat its “wild apples” in place.

So, while our month ahead isn’t in Thoreau country, the spirit of our approach to the city and streets of Paris is born of his sense of walking and being fully in place. We will look for apples (and chestnuts) along the streets.

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Eight Loons Two Eagles All Day

“…he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like a wolf than any other bird. This was his looning…” Journal 10/8/52

One of my favorite moments in Walden is Thoreau’s “pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.” The passage comes from a long entry in his journal that captures the game’s exuberance and the way a day afloat feels. The longish post that follows, some of it in the company of loons, felt suffused with a companion exuberance.

I hear the first loon a mile or so after I’ve begun. The October sea heaves with the remnant swells of a storm, but the sky is bluest clear. And so the water sparkles as if shot with diamonds. A breeze from behind sets up a chop that, running sideways to the swell, jostles some, but as long as I pay attention, I’m within my ocean-going comfort zone.

The call peels up from nearby water; it is, as has often been said, unearthly or otherworldly. But that seems right because, a mile offshore and in this needle of a boat powered only by hand, this is another world. Not quite laughter, it is surely announcement. I try to respond, but I am a stuttering impersonator, hardly loon at all. The loon calls again, and now I see him, floating high in the water, distinctive in plumage and profile. “Hello, brother,” I say.

Hear Me Laughing...at You

Hear Me Laughing…at You

He is the first of eight loons on this seaside leg of a long circumnavigation I’ve begun. Having summered and raised kin on inland lakes, they have come to the sea for fall, and as their calls and numbers accumulate, and as the sun warms my right side after a near-frost night, I feel loon blessed for the five-mile sea-run to the river I will ascend. What better companions?

The loons float the water effortlessly, and, as I settle into this paddling, I begin to mimic them, feeling the water’s various wobbles easily, starting to become “of” rather than “on” it.

Of Water

Of Water

I put in for a rest-stop on Rogue Island. Who wouldn’t, after all, want a little time with a rogue? From land, I look up, eye the sky. There, in serene circles, floats an eagle. One wing flap in a minute. The day must be generating thermals; he rises still and I return to my boat.

With the tide’s easy hand behind me, I go up the New Meadows River. The swell, absorbed by islands and fingers of land, doesn’t follow, and soon I am paddling quiet water with long strokes, free to look around. The maples and oaks shimmer their golds and reds amid the green companion pines. I slide from familiar waters into those I’ve yet to paddle; I check the chart to see where Sheep Island ends and Long Island begins, musing as I do about the number of Sheeps and Longs along Maine’s coast.

And – rare moment for this sort of unhurried day – I check also my watch: the only time pressure I feel stems from the need to reach the westward turn of Gurnet Strait before or at slack tide. The tide floods in the direction I’m going, but once it turns to ebb I could face a struggle getting through. As it empties the coves and inlets around it, Gurnet Strait is said to max out at up to 7 knots; in full-muscled, short-lived sprint, I can manage 4.

I bend to this effort, pressing my paddle forward and lengthening the forward reach of my stroke; the scenery becomes peripheral, but I also like this work and the mild excitement of racing the tide. An hour later, as I pull into a eddying pocket this side of the bridge, I can see the tide has begun its ebbing flow. But it is early in the cycle, and I push through the building 2-knot current, pass under the bridge’s odd, geometric shadow and then on into wider water where the current weakens.

Gurnet astern, I begin to to descend the long throat of water that leads to the Ewin Narrows, and, as I do, I flush eagle number two from a waterside pine. Unlike his earlier cousin, this is an immature eagle, and he seems a trifle grumpy about having to fly. Perhaps the pickings are easier in this thinlet – fewer competitors, the big-folk out at sea.

And now I pick up the outflow of tide. I had envisioned a gentle float on current out to the sea and my starting point, but the wind thinks otherwise: against forecast, it presses up from the south and into my face at 10+ knots. “Really?” I say aloud to the empty water and absent sky. Really. The 15 miles accrued announce themselves in my shoulders. “Really?” they say. “Yes,” I answer. “It looks like wind all the way.”

And so I float south, pushed on by the low hand of tide and held back by the high hand of wind. When I don’t paddle, I go precisely nowhere, and so I break the deadlock and paddle toward the sea.

Just as I have been circling the limits of this island, the sun has shifted through the sky, and now it warms my same right side from the southwest. My left side continues its cool day – air temps in the 50s, water temps the same.

The bridge where the Ewin Narrows open out into Harpswell Sound marks the 5-miles-left point. Riding some quick water, I scoot beneath its high span and into the small standing waves that current and wind have fashioned. They are happy distraction from the slow soldiering on into the wind, which, soon enough, colors again the late afternoon. Morning’s loons and tailwind? Gone. The ice-smooth river to slide over? Gone. The miles usual? Surpassed…long ago. Okay, okay…keep on.

But what, dancing in seeming formation, are those ten sails down the Sound? Some seaborne Opera of the Sound? One too many energy bars mainlined? Fantasized fairy-rescue? Hard to tell. As I press on, they seem to draw nearer, and faintly I hear a whistle; it seems that every time the whistle blows the sails change direction. How quaint, how picturesque, I think…until I realize that, riding the same wind I am fighting, they are headed straight at me and closing fast.

I begin a hurried ferry across current and sound; the whistle – now clear – sounds every 20 seconds; I hear the taut sails; they draw near like an odd flock of oversized birds. Now, I can read the word “Bowdoin” on the sails. The word “irony’ flashes in my mind. I will be crushed by a fleet of choreographed collegiate sails, not by the usual kayak-worries: the Portland tour boat, or some dyspeptic lobster guy, or some speed-addled cigarette-boater. The whistle blows again, and they veer away, racing by at every knot of wind I’m fighting. The launch bearing the whistle-blowing coach chugs by after them, and in the relief of now empty water, I aim for a nearby islet.

Wyer Island barely rises above the water; it holds a clutch of small trees and its grass bends in the wind. I stretch and peer at the three rippled miles remaining. I crunch a few grains like a horse recently unbridled; then, I go back to my seat, seal myself in and shove off.

The wind has shifted 20 degrees to the southeast. There has been no hiding from it on either side of the Sound. On, like the deepest sort of snow-trudging, this walking on water…sort of. I cut through small waves; others slap my boat and splash over me. No loons, no eagles, just the waning day, which is pretty enough with its high cirrus and still-brilliant sun and peak-colorful trees…if I raise my eyes to them.

Then, a mile from return, the wind drops, cuts out; the water goes quiet in a minute, and I am sliding once again across glassiness. Light spangles the surface. And the world’s only cribstone bridge, which rises right above my little launch-beach is close enough so its huge granite blocks are distinct.

A duck idles out of my way; two men sit companionably on a dock and squint at the falling sun; a mile across the Sound someone shuts a door. I glide up to my little beach and sit ten feet offshore; I hover there, waiting for the right moment to land.

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An Old Book Is a Joy Forever

By Corinne H. Smith

My part-time day job is to do cataloging for a seller of used books. Recently I was up to my ears in old children’s books at my desk when boss Kevin walked into the work room. He had been sorting through boxes of “new” arrivals in another part of the building. He had a smile on his face and a book in his hand, and he held it out to me.

“Here’s something I think you may want to see,” he said. I saw a slip of white paper sticking out of the book as I reached over my computer to take it.

As soon as I touched it, I said, “Wow.” The brown covers, both front and back, had intricate textured carvings. Bright gilding appeared on all three open edges of the pages, not just along the top. The spine had five metal rings in it. It was heavy. Now THIS was a book designed for reading and for keeping. “Homes of American Authors,” read the gilded letter titling. The flyleaves were made of marbled paper in hues of yellow, red, and blue. The title page said that it had been published by G. P. Putnam and Company in 1853. Wow again.

homesofaa

Kevin knows of my obsession with All Things Thoreau, so he often deflects relevant books to me. I’d never seen a copy of this one before, though. I figured that the slip must mark a mention of Henry. But from 1853? The book Walden wouldn’t be published until August 1854. Thoreau would so far have been known only for writing a few essays, delivering some lectures, and selling fewer than 300 copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What could this be?

The marker was tucked between pages 246 and 247, in the Emerson chapter. Of course! In the middle of the discourse about the famous resident of the big white house on the Cambridge Turnpike, the author chose to ramble a bit about one of the regular visitors to the place. It’s just one paragraph, and it’s obvious that the writer knows Thoreau. He finds it unusual that Henry hasn’t yet kicked up any arrowheads on the Emerson property:

The site of the house is not memorable. There is no reasonable ground to suppose that so much as an Indian wigwam ever occupied the spot; nor has Henry Thoreau, a very faithful friend of Mr. Emerson’s, and of the woods and waters of his native Concord, ever found an Indian arrowhead upon the premises. Henry Thoreau’s instinct is as sure toward the facts of nature as the witch-hazel toward treasure. If every quiet country town in New England had a son, who, with a lore like [English naturalist Gilbert White’s] Selborne’s, and an eye like [French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de] Buffon’s, had watched and studied its landscape and history, and then published the result, as Thoreau has done, in a book as redolent of genuine and perceptive sympathy with nature, as a clover-field of honey, New England would seem as poetic and beautiful as Greece. Thoreau lives in the berry-pastures upon a bank over Walden pond, and in a little house of his own building. One pleasant summer afternoon a small party of us helped him raise it – a bit of life as Arcadian as any at Brook Farm. Elsewhere in the village he turns up arrowheads abundantly, and Hawthorne mentions that Thoreau initiated him into the mystery of finding them. But neither the Indians, nor Nature, nor Thoreau can invest the quiet residence of our author with the dignity, or even the suspicion of a legend.

Wow again! Not only did this author know Thoreau, but he was a true friend and a fan who could wax poetic when necessary. He took a bit of literary license, since Henry’s time at Walden was from 1845-1847; and by 1853, he was living with his family in the yellow house on Main Street. Still, I wanted to know: Who wrote this piece?

I went back to the title page to find out. It unfortunately read “by various writers.” However, another page contained the names of eleven contributors, one for each chapter. Among them was George William Curtis (1824-1892), a New England-based author who wrote for Putnam’s Magazine. He lived for several years in Concord and also for a short time at Brook Farm. I’ve since learned that he was the one who penned this quick but nifty profile of Henry, embedded within his description of Emerson’s home. And it’s one of the earliest casual mentions of Henry in print media.

The old engraved illustrations in this book are simply stunning. In addition to Emerson’s house, there are pictures of the Old Manse and the homes of the Alcotts and the Hawthornes. A few pages were missing from the Emerson chapter, unfortunately. And the more I handled it, the sorrier I felt for this book. The front cover had entirely broken away from the spine. The back cover was threatening to do the same, as I discovered when I turned the book sideways to look at the engravings. The spine material was loose. All of the outer edges were worn. Some pages were aging and had a bit of foxing around their edges. It wasn’t the best gem in the jewelry box. Still, I was grateful that Kevin had taken the time to see if the name of Henry Thoreau appeared in it.

“Wow,” I said to him, after examining the book for the few minutes that seemed like a lifetime. “This is very cool. Thanks for sharing.” I handed it back to him.

“No, no,” he said, with his arms at his sides.  “I can’t sell a book in that condition.  You can keep it.”

Wow again.

Ol Manse Illustration from the Book

Ol Manse Illustration from the Book

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Hawk and Drone

We all do it. At some point in our readings of Henry Thoreau, we begin to imagine his life beyond its span. And then it isn’t long before we bring him to our neighborhood and our time. “What would Henry make of that?” we wonder. And then we wonder if we said it aloud.

This morning over coffee – yes, unnatural stimulant; water should do as elixir, I know – I wondered what Henry would make of a short clip I watched on boston.com. (I’ve put in the link below.) I’ll leave aside the whole discussion of watching life from remove for a while, and simply wonder about one of the “actors” in the clip.

The 40-second clip opens with an aerial view of an urban setting. The camera, borne aloft by a drone (quadcopter, it’s called) looks down over some hard-used playing fields by a river. The viewer suspects the drone’s ‘human companion’ is somewhere below on the playing fields.

A hawk soars by and appears to take an interest in what’s sharing his airspace. Effortlessly he veers its way; then, there’s the approach: still simply soaring, the hawk arrows in, at one point tilting his wings nearly 90 degrees to maneuver. He grows larger in the lens; the sky become hawk. Just so, if you were a duck. A few yards away, the hawk switches to talons first, flaring his wings. “Contact,” as Henry would say. “Contact.”

The drone begins to tumble down. Its camera catches the hawk lifting away. Then the drone is on the ground, the playground. Fittingly, the drone lands upside down, its world inverted.

Aside from reveling in the hawk’s takedown of what promises to be another noxious invention, what would Henry make of this moment?

One suspects a complicated response (including appreciation for the mechanics and optics of the drone), ending perhaps with a simple injunction: be wary of what distances you from the world.

Flying drones is an extension of the model airplanes that used to drone endlessly over the fields next to my boyhood house. Stuck on the field below, kids dreamed of flight, perhaps of becoming pilots, joining themselves to the long skein of bird-enviers in our race. But, of course, they had to use their imaginations to get a plane’s-eye view of our neighborhood.

Drones with their cameras change that. They take our eyes and mind where we can’t be, but, in doing so, they make us less aware of where we are. All our inventions that remove us from contact with what we see and sense pull us too from life. Our immersion in what isn’t would worry Henry, I think.

Here’s the link; see for yourself and let us know what you think: http://www.boston.com/news/2014/10/10/hawk-drone-video-captures-hawk-attack-quadcopter/fuZU493QFWyov65VoCbQWP/story.html?p1=Topofpage:Carousel_sub_image

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That Hum and Buzz

Insect Sounds

by Ashton Nichols

Think of an insect three inches long that makes a sound so loud it keeps you awake at night. When we traveled to a beautiful spot on the Delaware Bay recently, that is what we encountered. Think of another insect, half that size, which has inspired poets and painters the world over. Many of us have this first creature in the trees near our homes, and this second small animal near our hearths, along the flowered edges of our homes and our gardens. Cicadas and crickets–the singers of the bug world.

The cicada makes the loudest sound of any insect on earth; not one louder insect sound has ever been recorded. A cicada can reach 120dBs, which is equivalent according to the experts to: a riveter, a wood chipper, thunder in a summer storm, a diesel engine room, and a Fourth of July fireworks display. That’s loud! The female cicada makes no sounds whatsoever, and of all of these loud males, the Australian cicada buzzes louder than any other cicada…bububuuuuuzzzzzzzzzz! An astonishing sound.

Cicada photo by Bruce Marlin

Cicada
photo by Bruce Marlin

Here is what John Keats said about the warm sound of the crickets by his hearth: “from the stove there shrills / The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever.” Keats wrote these lines in a beautiful poem entitled “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead.”  So the poet, who is perhaps the greatest wordsmith of our language since Shakespeare, finds this tiny black bug to be a creature that can make a sound that warms us, even in the cold and dead days of winter.

The level 130dBs of sound is described by the experts as “deafening” and also as the “threshold of pain.” We all know what it is like to hear a sound so loud that our ears literally hurt. We have all turned up the stereo headphones too loud, or we have stood too close to dad when he was firing up the chainsaw right next to us, or we have been in the fifth row of a Led Zeppelin Concert in 1969–right in front of that bank of Fender amps–and, although we said we loved it, it really did hurt our ears. So imagine a little insect that can make a sound only 10dBs below this “threshold of pain” and then imagine dozens of these, or even hundreds of these, in the trees and shrubs around you on a late summer night.

Field Cricket

Field Cricket

Of course, there are other insects that make memorable sounds: grasshoppers, bees and wasps and mosquitoes and midges all buzz, and some buzz loudly. But I say that crickets and cicadas carry the day. They have the voices that do not die and, as Keats said two centuries ago, they are still “increasing ever.” We hope so. Although climate change may expand the range and population density of certain species, it will also upset the balance of many insects and most of their sound-making fellow species. Like the poet, I want to hear my nearby cicadas and crickets for years to come.

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Fall of Nuts

A Time for Squirrels

By Corinne H. Smith

“I should like to see a man whose diet was berries and nuts alone. Yet I would not rob the squirrels, who, before any man, are the true owners.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal November 7, 1853

I was sitting and typing in my writing porch on a recent breezy afternoon. The gusts were powerful enough to blow acorns right off the nearby oak tree. Bam! bah bah plop. Bam! bah bah plop. They slammed onto the porch roof, bounced twice, and landed outside my door, over and over. I put aside my work to go out, pick up a few acorns and look at them. They were squat and smooth and had fallen right out of their caps. The tree was still holding fast to those.

acorns2

Where acorns fall, squirrels appear. Now our yard is full of bounding puffy gray tails and the squawky sounds of critters claiming certain stashes as their own. They’re everywhere, all of the time: running over our roof, running up and down the wooden fence, perching on the railing or on a branch to take a snack break. Squirrels R Us.

This routine frenzy of fall always reminds me of a passage from John K. Terres’ book, From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog: The Walking Adventures of a Naturalist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969, pp. 196-198). Terres wrote from North Carolina, where he had adopted as an indoor pet a young flying squirrel he named Hepsey. One evening he decided to test Hepsey’s nut-gathering prowess:

In an experiment, I put one hundred hickory nuts on my bureau at dusk one fall evening to see what she would do with them. By midnight, when I returned to my room, she had stored them all. Some were in her nest box, others were in the folds of the window drapes, some were in my shoes under the bed, and others in the pockets of my shirt and trousers that hung outside my closet door. Just as the wild flying squirrels of Laurel Hill have food storage places in holes in trees a short distance from the home nest, or in the forks of limbs and under fallen leaves of the forest floor, these had been Hepsey’s hiding places for her stores.

At midnight when I came to my room, Hepsey had disappeared. I did not look for her but counted another one hundred hickory nuts and spread them on my bureau. The next morning when I got up, every nut was gone. Hepsey had picked up and stored two hundred in one night.

One squirrel + one night = two hundred hidden hickory nuts. Terres did some calculations. He considered the amount of prime nut-harvesting time, from September through January, and how many of those nights would have decent collecting weather. By his account, each flying squirrel in his neighborhood had the potential to grab and hide from 10,000 to 12,000 nuts in a single season. Since he often found “uneaten flying squirrel caches,” Terres was “sure that they usually stored many more than they ate. Hepsey seldom ate more than one or two hickory nuts in a night.” Which explains where hickory trees come from.

When Henry David Thoreau was developing his tree succession theories, he did a squirrel calculation, too. He estimated that on a piece of land measuring ten rods square (1/16th of an acre), squirrels would have to plant only 10 acorns a year “in order that there might be one oak to every square rod at the end of ten years.” (October 17, 1860) Too bad Henry didn’t sneak a squirrel past the rest of the Thoreau household and keep it in his room the way John Terres did.

Handful of harvest

Handful of harvest

Terres learned something else from watching his companion closely. “After Hepsey had stored a hickory nut or acorn, she would not store that same nut again. Her sense of smell or taste was so keen that she distinguished at once a nut she had had in her mouth before and refused to carry it away.” Presumably, this ability also helped Hepsey identify which nuts were really hers, when it came time to find and eat them.

If our squirrels are each hiding 10,000 acorns this year, and eating only a small percentage of them, maybe this is good news for me. Maybe I won’t have to mow the backyard at all in a few years. It will have become an oak forest. Then I’ll hear some REAL acorn thunder when I’m writing in the porch.

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Immersion

The little plan took hold during some days of visiting throughout southern New England. Why not, I thought as the miles slid beneath our tires, use a few free hours in Concord to retrace favorite trails behind (west of) Walden and then rinse off the heat and dirt with an immersion. Once seeded, the idea grew to promise – because the 29th would be my birthday, it would be a present to self.

A few minutes past three, I set out from Bear Garden Hill, tracing the Sudbury on my right, headed for Fairhaven. Beech leaves spot the trail, their yellow light rising from the ground. Then up under the Fairhaven cliffs, their jutting rock still a surprise after all these years, and on toward the pond. From atop the westside bank, the greeny waters are flecked with gray from the changing sky – the recent infusion of summer air is giving way to fall’s return and the wind has shifted to the northeast. Walden’s water is, as Henry Thoreau proposed often, most beautiful.

Another day, another hour, but always beautiful water.

Another day, another hour, but always beautiful water.

Even though I made my immersion vow during an 80-degree day that begged for its cooling, and now the temperature would be hard pressed to nudge 70, I reaffirm my plan. To warm for it, I run on, rounding the pond, climbing over Emerson’s Cliff, checking on the beavers in the bog south of the pond and trailing on into the Lincoln woods. By the time I return to the pond, I’m hot, and I shuck off my shoes and shirt before the cooling wind can take my heat.

The water is bracing cool. Here, on the southwest side, the bottom falls away quickly; a few steps bring me to chest level, and ducking myself pondward takes me out over my head. I float, feeling my body’s contractions, its heat seeping out, its muscles registering surprise. I can’t achieve an easy float for sky-watching, and so I ease back to shoulder-level water. There, I stand and watch the wavelets play across the eye-level surface. An envelope of water warms around me; I relax, slip toward reverie.

What wakens me is a jostling. Its enough to test my balance, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that the larger wavelets are rocking me. I watch a five-incher approach. It curls slightly; it mimics its larger sea-cousins. The trough drops the water-level to my neck, then the crest rises to my chin, and, sure enough, the wave moves me.

I begin a game of guessing the wavelets’ force, noting soon that the trough behind the first wave draws me to the second wave, whose force then feels magnified. A beech leaf surfs by. I am completely immersed in my reading of this water and the play of wind across it.

Even here at September’s end, with its sense of departure and imperative about “several more lives to live,” Walden is a whole world.

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Wood Work

A week or so ago, our neighbor had a cord of firewood dropped off in her driveway. I heard the heavy clatter while I was painting a side of our garage, and, after finishing that section, I walked over for a look. Her wood was a mix of ash and maple, cut into stove wood lengths and split. Hefting a few chunks told me that it was mostly dry; she had a lot of warmth piled up there.

I ambled back over to our house and closed my paint can and washed my brush. Then, I pulled out my axe, splitting maul and a few wedges and headed for our small stand of trees in the back. Out there I have a scavenger’s woodpile of rounds from a few local blowdowns in recent years. The birch was going to rot promoted by its tight bark, but the maple was still solid. I sized up a large round, examining its sides for whorls and other disturbances in the grain; then I took a swing, hitting precisely and happily the spot I’d aimed for. The axe stuck fast. As I worked to extract it, its head wobbled, and I thought of Henry’s axe, immersed in water to swell its wood and tighten its hold on the head. I got a bucket of water, set the axe in it and shifted to the splitting maul.

More to split

More to split

Gradually, as my axe soaked, my woodpile of white-faced quarters grew. I turned then to sections of a small oak that had been crowded out by our little lot’s pines and added its dense pieces to the pile. I spotted more downed wood next door and asked my neighbor about it, dragging it then to sectioning with my bucksaw and eventual splitting.

As the light shifted through my grove, I grew more and more attuned to any potential firewood, sorting what I found into types – chunk wood, quick heat, kindling. A satisfying warmth suffused me, and I thought of Henry Thoreau’s wood-scavenging in the fall of 1855, when he and a companion “brought home quite a boatload of fuel”:

“It would be a triumph to get all my winter’s wood thus,” he wrote on September 24th. “How much better than to buy a cord coarsely from a farmer…Then it only affords me a momentary satisfaction to see the pile tipped up in the yard. Now I derive a separate and peculiar pleasure from every stick that I find. Each has its history, of which I am reminded when I come to burn it…”

First fire in waiting

First fire in waiting

Just so in a narrative world where our stories are won by the time we allot to them. Autumn’s first fire draws near.

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September Morn at Walden

By Corinne H. Smith

patricewalden1

 

 

I come to Walden twice a year
To saunter ‘round the pond.
We gather at the replica
And set off after dawn.

It’s crisp and quiet on this day
When we begin our walk.
I tell my fellow colleagues
Just to listen and not talk.

We tiptoe as the clock would,
With the water to our right,
And share the place with fisherfolk
And swimmers glistening bright.

The Sun may be a morning star;
But its pale brother Moon
Still hangs above the railroad tracks:
It fades away too soon.

The air is chilly, that’s for sure.
I keep my hands tucked in.
A mist swirls on the water;
I can feel it nip my skin.

A few bold blue jays cackle
From the trees above our heads.
Then nuthatches and chickadees
Dart in and chirp instead.

But something’s missing from the scene:
A motion and a sound.
No chipmunks squeal across our path:
They’ve all stayed underground.

When I lead walks, they often
Chase each other near my feet.
The trail has fallen silent now;
The hike seems incomplete.

We make it to the house site
And we think of friend Thoreau.
If he were here, he’d no doubt
Tell us what we need to know.

And then we keep on going
With the sun strong in our eyes.
The bathers are just showing up
With blankets and supplies.

Companions tell me that they spied
Some chipmunks later on.
But they were few; and quick enough,
They scurried and were gone.

Are they driven by the cool air?
Do they sense the morning mist?
Will they have enough for winter?
Will they chatter and persist?

I wonder what you do, chips.
Are you snuggled, safe and dry?
Enjoy your hibernation, then.
I’ll see you next July.

patricewalden2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs are courtesy of Patrice Todisco, Executive Director, Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area.

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Trees for the Forest

I’ve spent much of my summer nearly past amid the trees; I became more mindful of this during a recent paddle on wide open waters near Maine’s Isle au Haut (pronounced locally, Isle a Ho). Most of the islands in this area are dense with forest, mostly spruce, birch and few white pines, and, when I pulled in for a rest stop on Wreck Island, I stepped from under a wide ocean sky into a close, lichen-papered room of dark woods. Pale green bearded-moss filtering the light hung from the trees; my eyes had to jump open a number of f-stops to see. A thin trail wound off to the right, and, for a minute, I watched it expectantly. Wreck Island is, however, now inhabited only by deer and assorted smaller animals, and so I was really peering down a trail and waiting for the past to arrive.

Spruce-capped Islands

Spruce-capped Islands

That past, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, saw very different islands, first claimed and then inhabited by a mix of farmers and fishermen and soon shorn of their trees, which went for fields, buildings, boats, heat and, as the 1800s wore on, pulp. Photos from the 1880s are recognizable only in the shapes of the islands. Such shearing of woodlands was, of course, familiar to Henry Thoreau in Concord also – that long-farmed landscape was cut close, which undoubtedly helped Thoreau treasure those patches of swamp and woodland left untouched. But to find deep woods, Thoreau had to travel to interior Maine.

As I paddled amid the islands, I thought about the microcosm of regeneration each represents. All but a few have full heads of forest-hair, and the interiors of those forested islands have reverted to the timeless suggestion and mystery of woodlands. On one tiny island (Potato), the heart-shaped hoof prints of deer pointed to who lived there now. The regreening of New England has been much noted (over 80% of our region is now forested), and, as the trees and forest thicken annually, woody anomalies keep reappearing too – a mountain lion in Connecticut (DNA sampling said he’d migrated from the Dakotas), a moose on Rte 128, bears in backyard trees. Now, ironically, the most shorn of landscapes can be found in the vast clear cuts of Maine’s interior, where only narrow “beauty strips” of trees separate those who paddle the rivers from the dazed, cut-over square miles of former woods.

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

Thoreau liked to count the rings of trees and learn the outlines of their stories during the good years and the hard. Counting the trees of this summer outlines a story of regeneration that Henry Thoreau would have nodded at and liked.

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Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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September Days

I know the feeling.

The days of this September week have acted on me as they may have acted on Henry in 1855. His journal covers the month’s first 12 days in under a page, ending with two haiku-like entries (I have reshaped them to suggest the form, and yes, the syllable-count stricture is relaxed):

Sept. 11 loudly the
cricket mole creaks by mid-afternoon
muskrat houses begun

Sept. 12 a few
clams freshly eaten some
grapes ripe.

Perhaps the slanting light and the etched clarity of each branch and leaf kept Henry from more usual, detailed writing; perhaps he felt summoned outside, even as the year began to contract. Surely, it’s felt that way for me. Summer’s expansive and eternal mornings have been replaced by sharp, cool air and the sense that something stirs to my north. Every minute outside seems precious and won; the clear air has said, Look and see.

And I have been rewarded:

Bluest sky tall spruce
a single perch for survey
two bald eagles vie

Pebbles crunch underfoot
laughter peals from the white birch
pileated woodpecker

Sea to horizon
ripples shot with sun flight
all day to paddle

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Living Space – Henry Thoreau

What square-footing did he have
in the world, living little
indoors, large
outside – anachronism
another way of saying
timeless which some
see as eternal – lair
fitting nicely the proportions
of his human animal
five foot seven 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
flare and droop 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 150
footprint.

“I grew in these seasons
like corn in the night,”
he will write
effectively closing
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
far from the pond
these 160 summers later.

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Sitting Morning

Sitting the Morning

Deep summer. Something seasonal stirs: light slants, a leaf turns, cool pools. And yet…on this morning, I lose sight of oncoming change and sit by the window in a shaft of sunlight; the day gains immediacy.

I am reminded of Thoreau’s stoop-sitting morning at the start of “Sounds” in Walden:

I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and the hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night and they were far better than any work of hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.

We are, I think, born to grow on the edge, or in the margins, whether of seasons or in the doorways of the various constructions we make. Thoreau sited his tiny house at Concord’s margin, and, on the morning described above, set himself in between the tiny house’s interior and Nature’s ‘big house.’ The birds recognized the seamless presence of the house as they equally “[sing] around or [flit] noiselessly through” it. Not so easily done by a human, however, and Thoreau must be “rapt in revery” to “[grow] in those seasons like corn in the night.”

Photo on 8-24-14 at 10.14 AM

By this window, the jay squalls; the cardinal whistles; I sit. May your deep summer contain like moments.

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Down Came a Spider

By Corinne H. Smith

Ask anyone who knows me. They’ll confirm that my main priorities in life do not include housekeeping tasks.

So I wasn’t completely surprised one morning when a spider appeared in front of me as I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes. (Yes, every few days I wash the dishes by necessity, by hand.) She had dropped down from her nearly-invisible web at the place where the wall meets the ceiling. She just hung there, by a thread in mid-air, right at my eye level. “Hello,” I said. “How are you? Is your name Charlotte?” I laughed at my joke. If she responded, it was in a way or in a language that I could not decipher.

What could I do? My hands were wet and soapy. I didn’t want to hurt this spider. But I did want to discourage her from landing on the counter, where she could get accidentally crushed. So I came up with the idea of disturbing her lightly by blowing in her direction. My breath made her sway toward the window. After a few seconds, she got the message. She hoisted herself back up to her ceiling perch. Quite quickly, too. Spiders are amazing creatures.

A few days later, when I was washing the dishes again, Charlotte came down to visit me a second time. Now I gave her a good look as I talked to her. I saw that her two front legs were longer than the other six, and they looked as if they had little hooks on them. She was so tiny, though. She was smaller than the fingernail on my pinkie. When I blew in her direction this time, she dropped down to the edge of the cat’s water dish. Oh no! Had I drowned her? Evidently not. She sat there for a bit, then once again hoisted herself back up to the ceiling. I was still amazed.

The third time she dropped down in front of me, I decided to get an even closer look at her. I wanted to figure out what kind of spider she was. So I wiped off my hands and went into another room to grab a magnifying glass. When I came back to the kitchen, Charlotte was close to the counter. I moved the magnifier gently over her and leaned down to get a peek. Well, she was having none of this. She must have seen my action as an intrusion of privacy or even an outright threat. She nearly flew back up to the ceiling, seemingly in a rage. I was disappointed, but I understood. I put the magnifier away and finished washing the dishes. Every once in a while, I looked up and spied Charlotte sitting in her web near the clock. I sensed anger and a feeling of betrayal. I apologized to her for my arrogance.

Charlotte II

Charlotte II

As I thought about these encounters, I wondered if Henry Thoreau had any similar meetings with spiders. I searched his journal entries and didn’t find any appropriate passages. Then I realized the obvious secondary connection: E. B. White, renowned essayist and author of the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” had been a devoted fan of Henry Thoreau. Perhaps it was this inclination toward a close inspection of nature that drew him to study and to write about a spider in “Charlotte’s Web” and a mouse in “Stuart Little.” I decided to follow this diversion and briefly revisit White’s Thoreauvianism.

Elwyn Brooks “Andy” White (1899-1985) first read “Walden” as an undergraduate at Cornell University. It became his favorite book and the one that affected him the most. In an essay simply called “Walden,” White shared the details of his pilgrimage to Concord in June 1939. He drove into town on MA Route 62. (MA Route 2 had yet to be built.) He walked to the pond via Main Street, Thoreau Street, and MA Route 126. He passed the Golden Pheasant lunchroom and the Walden Breezes trailer park before heading downhill for the shoreline. He spoke of bathers, boaters, and the litter lying around the park. Thoreau’s house site was marked, but not as exactly as it is today. And White didn’t think very highly of the cairn, even though he found a rock to add to it. “It is a rather ugly little heap of stones, Henry,” he wrote. He walked back to the town center along the railroad. It’s difficult to know if he considered the trip worthwhile or disappointing. His total bill for staying one night and eating at Concord’s Colonial Inn came to $4.25.

In 1954, the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Walden” stirred White to write an essay that was both a tribute and a literary analysis. It was published variously with the title “A Slight Sound at Evening” or “Walden 1954.” Nearly every sentence glows with admiration. Even White found it difficult at times to be so enamored with Henry and with “Walden.” “To admire the book is, in fact, something of an embarrassment,” he wrote, “for the mass of men have an indistinct notion that its author was sort of a Nature boy.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I enjoyed reading E. B. White’s essays, but I had to return to the present day. Naturalists will tell you that you’re never more than three feet away from a spider. Our Charlotte has been busy in the past weeks, catching flies and other tiny insects in her ever-enlarging web. She finally dropped down to see me yesterday when I was washing the dishes yet again. This time, it was just a chance for us to say hello to each other. Then she pulled herself back up to the ceiling. I think we’re on good footing again.

Charlotte provides a nice little pest-removal service for us. Maybe I don’t need to know exactly what kind of spider she is. She’s a helpful and social one. And thanks to fellow Thoreauvian E. B. White, I can at least give her a first name.

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Deep-Summer Kitchen Garden Report: Ponderings on What We Grow

by Debbie Bier

Do you know where your food has been the last 10,000 years?

I don’t mean where it was grown or how it traveled to your plate – which are worthy questions, certainly – but its history over the course of centuries or millennia. In what part of the world did it originate? Was it bred for specific characteristics? How were its genetics preserved to grow and end up on your plate today? This is something I ponder often as I tend the kitchen garden at Thoreau Farm – in fact, it’s become a favorite moving meditation over the years.

House Garden

House Garden

All this garden’s plant varieties were carefully chosen, known or reasonably assumed to have been in New England by 1878. That’s the year the house was moved to its current location, and the date we therefore chose for our exterior restoration. Mostly, the roughly 70 varieties we are growing this year go back much further than 1878. Some decades earlier, others centuries… some even stretch far back into human prehistory. As we take this photographic tour around the mid-summer 2014 kitchen garden, I’d like to point out some of these plants and their history. I hope next time you shop, garden, prepare, or sit down to eat a meal, you’ll find yourself curious about the larger history of what you’re eating. And since this goes back to the miracle of the seed, “…be prepared to expect wonders!”

The Early Purple Vienna Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea) I’m clutching in the photo here is a pre-1860 variety grown for its tender, delicious, swollen, bulb-like stem and copious, beautiful leaves. There is also a green Vienna available from the same era, but I think: why grow a green plant when a purple one is available? Kohlrabi is an unusual looking plant that evokes silliness among our visitors – which is why everyone is laughing in the photo.

Kohlrabi (with author)

Kohlrabi (with author)

The Egyptian Walking Onion (Allium proliferum) is one of our most marveled-at plants by visitors. This unusual 1850s variety is not Egyptian in the least – but it sure does walk! These are perennial scallions that reproduce by setting a top cluster of bulbils, which look exactly like tiny red onions. The weight of the developing cluster causes its up-to-4’-long stalk to fall over and touch the ground. At that point, the bulbils put down roots and sprout leaves. You can see the cluster in my hand here is already sprouting to the tune of 6” long leaves! They are amazingly hardy and come up early in the spring, quickly supplying us with copious quantities of scallions right up until winter’s heavy snow covers them. Visitors often use the word “alien” to describe it.

 

Egyptian Walking Onion

Egyptian Walking Onion

An 1845 corn variety first grown in Virginia, Bloody Butcher (Zea mays), has distinctive, long root-like structures that are sent down from the first and sometimes second nodes along its stalk. Feel free to refer to them as we do: corn toes. It was bred by crossing Native American corn with the European settlers’ seed. At Thoreau Farm, we grow it for grinding, though it was a favorite “moonshine” corn in its day. This corn is deep maroon when mature, hence the “blood” in its name. It grinds up purple and is a dark gray-blue when baked into cornbread.

corn

We grow more than one dark red plant that uses “blood” in its name, another being the 1840’s Bull’s Blood beet (Beta vulgaris) with its intensely dark red-purple (almost chocolate brown) leaves. More typically grown for its foliage for use in salad mixes, it does have a lovely small beet that reveals white rings running through the crimson when it’s cut. It was so long popular for its leaves that rumor had it that the bulb was inedible – which is nonsense. I love to plant the various beet varieties clustered together, the Bull’s Blood here mixing with the 1820s Golden Beet, and the pre-1811 Early Wonder Top Beet. This year it’s also flanked by an improved version of the 1871 Danver’s Carrot developed in nearby Danvers, MA.

beets

Have you ever wondered exactly where the poppy seeds on your bagel come from? In this photo, we see poppy seeds growing in two stages: a future potential in the open flower of the Breadseed Poppy (Papaver somniferum), and to its left, the still-ripening pod where the seeds are forming. This plant was bred to have none of the natural openings in the pod so the seed wouldn’t be spilled before harvest. That’s some pretty smart and successful breeding!

Poppy

Poppy

We grow the Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) to honor the Cherokee who carried this bean over the Trail of Tears, the infamous winter death march from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma (1838-1839) that left 4,000 dead along the way. I chose this bean to connect us to Thoreau’s deep sense of social justice and interest in the native peoples here. The pods are tender and succulent as string beans, though we grow them mostly for their gorgeous shiny black dried beans. Visit the house in early September, and you’ll see the pods will have swollen and turned a dusky purple on their way to full maturity. When cooked, the dried beans are rich and flavorful in ways our typical canned black beans never could be. Heirloom beans are amazingly delicious – that they have rabid devotees is understandable once you taste them. Down with canned, flavorless beans!

Cherokee Bean

Cherokee Bean

When it comes to certain squash and pumpkins, we have to look back millennia to view their history. The “flying saucer” patty pan and the ever-abundant yellow crooknecks (both Curcurbita pepo) are believed to have pre-historic North American origins. Our white patty pan – “White Custard Squash” – was documented in Spain in 1591, where it arrived from the New World. In 1722, it was documented growing in what is now the United States, planted by Colonial settlers.

pumpkin

The pure breeding of squash varieties – which is what makes the characteristics of the parents breed true in their offspring – over millennia boggles my mind. Truth be told: squash of the same species (though different varieties) will cross-pollinate willy-nilly in the garden. To properly save seed, both male and female squash blossoms must to be isolated and then hand-pollinated. (In this photo, the fading pumpkin flowers across the bottom are males with their thin, long stems; the flower hanging downwards at the top is a female with an ovary behind the dying flower that looks just like a miniature pumpkin.) To maintain these varieties for hundreds or thousands of years takes real devotion, and endless generations of hands doing the job correctly, faithfully year after year after year. Thinking about squash varieties that are thousands of years old, I am both astonished and grateful to those long-gone farmers.

In contrast, all of the commercial seed stock from the wonderful delicate squash was ruined a few years ago by improper pollination methods. If it were not for home seed savers who held pure seed and were able to restore it to commercial production, we would no longer have this lovely variety – it would have been lost forever.

Between the super-powered, nutrient-dense goat manure from small local goat herds, and the fantastic seed, much of which we save ourselves and are adapting to perform best in this location, the garden this year is absolutely fantastic! Do visit any time, particularly weekends 11a-4p until October, when you can also tour the inside of the house.

The 2014 Thoreau Farm Kitchen Garden map and the 2014 Thoreau Farm Kitchen Garden planting list are included at the end of this post; they may be copied for reference.

Deborah Bier is a Thoreau Farm Board member. She created and has manages our Kitchen Garden. She is also on the steering committee of the Concord Seed Lending Library, for which Thoreau Farm grows seed and educates the public. www.ConcordSeedLendingLibrary.com

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Filed under Environment, General, Nature, The Roost


On Taking Down a White Pine

Famously, Henry Thoreau built his house in the woods from “some tall, arrowy white pines” that he cut down “still in their youth.” And, less famously, a page or so later in Walden, he contends, “Before I had done I was more friend than foe of the pine tree…having become better acquainted with it.” Perhaps. I’ve had Thoreau’s experience and passage in mind recently as I’ve felt my own imperative to cut down a pine. Here’s that story.

It’s a mid-afternoon in early August when the white truck with WellTree, the company logo, on it rolls up. It’s a bucket truck, and it’s followed by a bulky-bodied cousin dragging an industrial-sized chipper (think Fargo). Two thirty-something men with orange headphones around their necks step down from the trucks in our driveway and begin to size up a large white pine on the front lawn; I walk out to meet them and redirect them to the pine with four leaders on the fringe of the driveway. A few second pass. “Geeze, Jeff,” one says under his breath. “This time of day?”

Pine Presence - this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Pine Presence – this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Jeff is WellTree’s owner, and a few hours ago, he appeared and wondered if his guys could begin on this tree a day early (One of their two bucket-trucks was in for repair, and they had two bucket jobs for tomorrow). “Sure,” I’d said.

And so his guys have arrived, but the 80-foot tree before and above them is not a mid-afternoon tree. “We were expecting something smaller,” the man, who will turn out to be the sawyer, says. Fifteen minutes later, the bucket truck is nosed up to the pine’s trunk and, headphones tight to his ears, he’s lifting off as the mechanical arm unflexes; he seems to fly up into the tree like an actor carried over stage by invisible wires. Thirty feet up, he fires up his saw and trims a spreading branch at the halfway point; then, he shifts the bucket five feet to his left, leans out with one arm and cuts the rest of the limb; it drops to the driveway with a body sound you feel through your feet. The usual day with its usual decisions goes away.

Feeling agitated and vague, I go inside to work; I can’t sit still. The saw snarls. Then the chipper’s motor adds its chewing bass note. I’m up pacing. I feel like the tree, I think; “well, that’s silly,” I say out loud. I sit again, read a sentence, then reread it, wonder what it’s about, can’t recall. “I feel like the tree,” I say aloud. The saw snarls again. The tree’s day has arrived. I have summoned it.

Taking down this white pine has not been a whimsical decision. We’ve been in our house for 11 years, and early on, noting the pine’s lean toward and over that house, we had some branches trimmed as guard against our regular ice storms. That seemed to suffice. And yes, it dripped pitch steadily on whatever was beneath it, but like all trees, as I swept its needles up every so often, it grew neighborly. Or I grew neighborly. But earlier this summer Ray, the man who helps us with our plants, called our attention to a seam in the trunk’s center; that wet, dark line appeared on both sides, and when you stood next to the trunk, the whole tree leaned over you in the direction of the house. “If this were my house,” said Ray, “I’d have that looked after.” And so, in this era when storms seem to have intensified and a new fungus has nipped at local pines’ needles, we called WellTree to have a look.

To begin with, this pine has four leaders, which any follower will tell you is three too many. I learn that pines growing without the tight neighborliness of other pines tend in this direction; they spread into available sky. But as they reach size all this spreading weight begins to pull the central trunk apart; the seam Ray pointed out is likely sign of the leaders’ branching out.

I look up through our clerestory windows. There’s more light in the sky; I go outside to watch. More limbs fall. The two machines snarl and growl, the smaller feeds the larger. Wood chips fly into the truck’s covered body; each chip is smaller than a thumbnail. I realize that I am sad. And once I’ve said “sad” to myself, as a I lean against our car’s body watching, the feeling takes hold deeply. The bucket moves like a conjurer’s arm. More pieces fall; tons remain upright. This, I realize, is going to take some time.

It’s nighttime. The men and their trucks have left. Two leaders of the pine remain at their full 80 feet. It’s raining lightly. I feel tears seep from my eyes. The sadness feels unalloyed, pure. What have I done? I ask. I want to look away; I can’t.

There is explanation; there is sense to be made: I’ve just retired from a 40-year teaching career and its everyday touch of youth and its fast-growing leaders. We’ve moved 130 miles from the school where we lived. Every day I press a littler farther into a shorter future. But really? That’s maudlin, and there’s as much to celebrate as there is to mourn, more really.

And there isn’t explanation. I’ve run the saw, felled trees, sometimes 10s of them in a day; I’ve burned wood for heat. I’ve lived in End-of-the-road New Hampshire in a wood-heated, or at least warmed, house.

Perhaps, I think, the time it’s taking offers some echo of just how long this pine has been aloft, stretching a little each day for the light in the sky, thickening to itself in rings over years. Perhaps it’s because I’ve ordered this, like some near general, and now I must sit in my bunker and watch my orders played out. Perhaps.

On the second morning, it takes longer. The two remaining leaders must be trimmed carefully – they rise over the neighborhood’s wires. And then, bringing their bodies down must happen in alternating ten-foot sections, with the rope tied off to the other leader-trunk. Flakes of sawdust float like a storm-ending flurry of snow.

Whittled now down to 40-foot stalk of pine. With our neighbor, Claude, I’m out watching this final trunk pulled down onto a cross-hatching of its brother stems laid out to protect the lawn some from the final fall. Post-image: after it comes down, and after the trunk is cut into eight-foot lengths, the sawyer is running the hydraulic arm that clasps and lifts each log into the truck’s body; when he raises the section with the seam in it, the log spins, and I can see that the seam goes all the way through the trunk; also, as the log rises a trail of liquid drips steadily from it – too fluid and frequent to be pitch, it must be some watery intermediate: yes, it drips like blood, but it also is some harbinger of rot.

The work order calls for this “low stump” to be left. We’ve said we’ll live with this before deciding what’s next. Now, in the aftermath, I’ve taken a seat there. First I’ve counted the rings, noting the flush years and the lean, saying the numbers aloud to keep from losing my place, then recounting to this: 63. Mild surprise – older, I thought, say in its 80s. The column of air above me where the pine was weighs little, best measured in ounces; the bushes and nearby trees eye the new open space.

Pine Absence

Pine Absence

Early evening of pine-absence: sunlight punctuated by distant thunder; the light gives way to a faux-dusk. A storm is lumbering in from the north. It breaks: flashed light, immediate thunder, rain that obscures everything beyond the yard – is there room for air amid such water? The backyard pines toss their branches in the furious air; the maples buck up high. I feel washed free.

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote


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