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”
One of the pleasures (and occasional curses) of deep familiarity with a book is our tendency to “see” it in other readings. While this tendency may at times make us into so many Procrustes (the mythic Greek blacksmith and (of course) son of a god, who showed his hospitality by stretching or cutting his visitors to fit his guest bed rather than adjusting the other way), more often, it enlivens our readings and adds new visions to them.
Here’s one such mash-up brought to me during recent reading. I wonder if you have the same sort of experience when reading Thoreau?
Thoreau and Bly – What We Drag Behind Us
In A Little Book on the Human Shadow (Harper and Row, 1988), Robert Bly writes about what we express and what we hide as we grow to be our adult selves. Chapter 2 is a short essay entitled “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us,” and, for me, the image has always made me think of Henry Thoreau and his move to the pond. Bly suggests that, as we grow and decide what parts of us to show, we put the other parts – often those that are socially difficult – in our bags. But, of course, because our bags are full of us, we must take them along wherever we go. It is labor to drag such a bag behind oneself.
Each time I read Walden with students, this image returns to me. There, in 1845, is the 27-year-old Henry Thoreau, building his 10′ by 15′ house in the woods by Walden, and as he works – getting “well pitched” by the “tall arrowy pines” that are becoming this house, another sort of ‘bag’ – he must be thinking about what he will put into it. What will he carry out from town in his cart? How will he furnish it? What, in short, is “necessary?” Who will he be out here?
What Thoreau makes clear in “Economy,” his long stumbling- block of an opening chapter, is that answering these questions carefully is vital to the life that will follow. And so some 60+ pages into the book, he thinks about furnishing his house:
Furniture! Thank God that I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men…
And – no surprise – Thoreau goes on to tout a minimalist approach to such possessions. He wants his cart to be light, easy to pull; it is practical advice. But then a shift in imagery and tone arrives, and the reader realizes that Thoreau is – no surprise here, either – intent on making metaphor of his thoughts on furniture:
If you are a seer, whenever you meet a man you will see all that he owns, ay, and much that he pretends to disown, behind him, even to his kitchen furniture and all the trumpery which he saves and will not burn, and he will appear to be harnessed to it…
Here is a version of Bly’s long bag we drag behind us, a mix of possessions and pieces of self that we feel we must have and, at the same time, hide. Such work – this walking and hauling of self out into our own lives.
Perhaps this is what Thoreau means when he nudges himself (and us) toward realization – when we both realize who we are and what choices we have made to become that person. And, in doing so, we make that person real. Perhaps then, we unpack, sell off what we don’t need and set off lighter into our lives.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Of course it is the spirit in which you do a thing which makes it interesting, whether it is sweeping a room or pulling turnips.” Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, November 26, 1860
Last week with this positive attitude in mind, I headed outside and grabbed the rake. The community pick-up trucks were due on Monday, and I had many hours’ worth of work ahead to gather up all of our leaves and deposit them on the front curb.
Our big back yard is home to four large trees: a red oak, a sweet gum, a white pine, and an indeterminate deciduous tree whose leaves turn black and curly. Two houses west, a tall maple litters the landscape with progeny that comes our way with every wisp of the wind. Get the picture? I had raked and gathered just two weeks earlier, but now I found myself wading through another thick layer of leaves. They were back. Let the games begin.
Could leaf-raking be undertaken as a transcendental activity? I thought so. I dismissed the use of the landlord’s gas-powered leaf blower, which was stored in a nearby shed. Such devices are an affront to the eyes, ears, and nose, in my opinion. And too many of my neighbors relied on them. I wanted to be deliberate, be outside, be quiet, and become one with this small part of the world. For just a little while.
It was a bright but brisk and windy November day. I soon had to go back inside to get my winter gloves and scarf, though I was dismayed when I could not find the matching woolen hat. My ears would have to suffer. The wind also gave the leaves their last chances to dance and to fly. I often found myself herding a flock instead of leading a charge.
Eventually my brain ceased to dally with its daily cares and instead focused on sounds. We’re never far away from the mechanics of civilization. With my full attention drawn downward, I could still hear a small plane flying overhead, regular traffic on a nearby highway, an occasional siren from a passing ambulance, and the pointed stops of buses that carry our suburbanites to the nearest city. At least these buses are now powered by natural gas and not by diesel fuel.
In the midst of it all, the act of raking itself created a satisfying sound. It was soothing to listen to the flat wooden fingers as they stroked the leaves, the grass, and the ground. By comparison, the same action turned suddenly harsh when the rake moved across the wooden deck and the asphalt driveway. Over them all, I kept an even pace. Rake, rake, rake. Drop batches onto a plastic tarp. Drag the tarp to the front sidewalk. Slide the leaves onto the sidewalk. Over and over, again and again. Even thrice-weekly workouts at a gym didn’t exercise the kinds of muscles I was using now. I would be sore for days. But it was a good, healthy feeling.
A few lines of noisy Canada geese steered across the sky above me. I stopped to watch as one group turned itself around and headed back to where it had started. Silly geese. Then little birds came to inspect the territory I had just uncovered. Juncos and tufted titmice looked for tiny unearthed goodies. We shared the yard for the rest of the afternoon.
When I was finished, hours later, ours was indeed the largest and tallest leaf pile on the block, and I was darned proud of it. When I admired it from our front picture window, I was reminded of another familiar Thoreau passage:
“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work.” From“House-Warming” in “Walden”
And so this woman could look at her leaf-pile with a kind of affection too, knowing that its bits and pieces would soon be transformed into mulch. Someday it would all help something else to grow, somewhere else.
We section off time to mimic the sun’s rolling passage, and we shape our round days to resemble each other in the way close cousins sometimes do. Slowly, it often seems, imperceptibly, we roll along until we reach a marker that signals difference. We step step again, and suddenly, we are in new land- or timescape.
So it is for me when the month of light, November, ends and the month of late afternoon, December, begins. A December day feels always on the verge of darkness to me, and to counter that feeling, I begin to brew afternoon tea, and I look for a long book.
I experienced a similar feeling recently, when I left the light-filled pages of Walden after an Nth reading.
On a Monday early, we went to Walden Pond as punctuation for our readings of Walden. On Friday, we had closed the book. “The End,” Henry writes (and a student pointed out). I’d never paid attention to those two words, though, given the long drafting of Walden, I should have. There they are, set apart as if to say, “okay, no more comfort of linear travel along these lines of print. Out with you; get out of the little rectangle of my house, out of your house too, out under the light of the morning star.”
And outside those close confines, here each of us is, in the bumbled world of jumbled experience and time, or in the jumbled world of bumbled time and experience.
“O,” we say, disconcerted by the simultaneity of it all, “let’s begin again; let’s reread; we’ll even study!”
“No,” we hear. “I mean The End, when I write it. Time to live,” he answers.
And so, there, beyond The End, we were. We had special permission from the state park to arrive and park and visit the house site before official opening. I had secured that permission after a test walk on the trails that approach Walden from the west had convinced me that the sneaking that appealed to me took more time than we had.
Sanctioned, official, upright, we crossed Route 126 and descended to the pond, bearing right then along the northern edge. The water level was the lowest I can recall, opening a fringe of sand that nearly circled the pond. Tendrils of fog rose from the water like gray snakes. It was, as always, perfect. We walked in silence and in file.
Then, the “morning star” rose over the ridge to the south of Pine Hill. The train shot through.
Time reassembled itself. We boarded for December.
Perhaps I’ll offer confession later, but for now, a dropped jaw will have to do.
On November 7th the business world, at least its stock market manifestation, was agog with the public’s chance to buy into the future. At least the future in 140 or fewer characters. Offered at a mere $26 per share to begin, Twitter’s stock price soon reached the 40s, the sort of rise that suggests some interstellar tangent. Okay, we’d seen this wild, financial optimism, this placing of bets, before.
But what does Twitter do? “It shares,” might be one answer. “Shares what?” we ask, as we reach for our wallets. “It allows me to share what I am doing in real time.” Whose voice is that, we wonder. “Never mind,” says the exchequer of the wallet. “This stock is hot.”
As is often true when society sends up its party balloons and celebrates self, I turned to Henry Thoreau for perspective. He too wondered about our need to know the minutia of others’ lives, their daily gossip, even as he stopped into town to hear it and read newspapers avidly. Henry understood that our appetites, even for morsels of “news,” could get out of hand quickly.
And, of course, he did offer his “experiment” at the pond as example of pursuit of understanding and elevating “I.” But he avoided the short, banal expressions of “tweeting.”
Thoreau’s sentences often exceed 140 words; and when he does go short, we read Walden’s, “Our life is startlingly moral.” Or, “There is nothing inorganic.”
These are koan-like sentences to ponder.
I’ve read between lots of Thoreau’s lines and through his Journals, and I’ve yet to find this: b-fast porridge rockin the pond; AT back w/ “borrowed” Iliad; may walk later w/ EC; wonder bout my beard.
I’ll keep my wallet holstered.
Estabrook Woods: In November the downed leaves make a noisy pathway, and they hide the roots and stones, forcing me to pay attention. This repeated phrase is my late fall mantra. But sometimes, when I do look up, I find pale beauty in the understory. With the leafy canopy gone, light streams into this lower region, and there, it finds the pale fire of the burning bush and the parchment delicacy of the ferns.
In its suburban yard incarnation the burning bush is often just that, a fiery flare of red leaves that, depending upon the individual bush, either burst into short-lived flame or burn steadily for days. But in the woods the bush is a subtle fire, a pastel murmur of flame that keeps in it hints of green until deep autumn.
Now seems the right time to acknowledge that the burning bush is an invasive species; in some states (our Massachusetts, for example) it is even an outlaw. Nurseries are forbidden its sale, and occasional posses of citizens root out clusters where they are found.
Here, I may start a fire of my own, but, in this case, I can’t summon alarm. In fact the whole invasive species argument seems to me arbitrary, as the floral and faunal history of the world seems one of migration rather than homesteading. Yes, I will agree that in some cases where a purple loosestrife or a water chestnut crowds out all competitors and changes a whole land- or waterscape, I feel regret. As a fan of goldenrod, for example, I rue the way some late summer fields that used to say gold now speak purple. (Added note: recently I read – and now can’t rediscover – that goldenrod is the most (or second-most) noted plant in Thoreau’s journals).
But are not we also an invasive species? Certainly in our subgroups we are, riding like so many Huns or Visigoths into the “open” territory of some other peoples and animals and declaring it open for our business.
In any event, each fall as I walk these woods, and especially as I reach the old limekiln site along the Carlisle Road, I spend time with the pink and pale fire that burns in the understory air and lights the ground. If you step into the midst of this cluster with the sun slanting in from the west, the light is so intense it feels warm, even as the wind rackets coldly in the bare branches high above.
Added note: help, by the way, is on the way. A horticultural scientist at the University of Connecticut has developed a sterile version of the burning bush. Soon, perhaps, as sales of these popular bushes continue, their seeds, spread by birds who eat them, will fall on the cold earth and nothing will rise from them.
a meditation on “Higher Laws”
Walden’s Higher Laws chapter rarely fails to provoke (and so, wake up?) a reader. Year after year, we arrive on its shores, and I watch as students shift from nodding acceptance of Thoreau’s portrait of the young boy as hunter and fisher to puzzlement (or outrage) when, late in chapter, he writes, “Nature is hard to be overcome but she must be overcome.” After weeks in the woods and an ongoing paean to “the wild,” this sentence seems a looped snare in the middle of the trail. Here we are, walking our leafy way through the woods, when, suddenly, we are airborne…and upside down. It seems a hard way to “invert your head.”
So there we were leafing through the chapter with these predictable results, and I had asked, “So, what might Thoreau mean when he says, ‘she must be overcome?’”
“So, perhaps,” said Daniel, “what Thoreau is talking about is the shift from hunter to poet. The poet still reaches out to take hold of the world, but he does so with words. The instinct is undimmed, but its expression has changed.” Mild confession: here, I have paraphrased, but I think I have caught the insight and the spirit of Daniel’s thinking.
Quiet ensued. Every so often in a classroom, there comes a moment of appreciative silence; the oiled click of so many locks sliding open is barely but clearly audible. In an instant, we know more. In the next instant there is nothing more to say, and we let the silence deepen for a bit before we turn to what’s next.
Now and for the rest of the years I read and reread this chapter, I’ll see the hunter become poet as he or she fashions the capture-cage of words that would both bring the wild close and leave it intact. Thank you, Daniel.
By Corinne H. Smith
Our neighborhood sounds almost like Spring these days. Every morning before 6:30 a.m., a bird sings loudly and seemingly joyfully for about five minutes from a tree in our front yard. I don’t know what kind of bird it is, but its song is familiar. The same fellow – or one of its family members – made its winter home in the arborvitae bushes beside our carport last year. Back then it shared its melodies off and on, sometimes even during cold or snowy days. It sang quite a bit when everything turned green. Then it left to spend summer and fall somewhere else. Now the bird is back, ready to hunker down in our bushes again, preparing to escape the weather to come.
It’s not the only one. Nearly every yew and juniper on our block is teeming with little birds. You can hear them chattering to each other from the branches within. They’ll go suddenly silent if someone walks past, especially if the person is being led by a dog or two. But after a pause of only a few seconds, the chirps of conversation will start up again. I guess they’re all vying for position. If you’re a bird and you need a comfortable shelter against wind and precipitation, you’d want to find the right spot to sit in. Can you imagine holding onto a branch during a snowstorm?
Our house and carport protect these six arborvitaes from the western winds, making them perfect winter homes for birds.
I’m not a total dolt when it comes to identifying birds. But our morning singer and its cohorts hide too much or move too fast for me to train binoculars on them. I haven’t taken the time to figure out who they are. For now, they fall into the catch-all category of LBBs – Little Brown Birds. I once lamented to an avid birdwatcher that I wished that all of Nature’s creatures would wear name tags. “They do,” he replied. “You just can’t read them.”
This is not the first time I’ve been lucky enough to share close quarters with a wintering bird. Back in the early 1990s, a male house finch chose the uncovered light fixture on our back porch for its winter home. Only a single bulb was left in the old two-bulb fixture; and a metal T-shaped bar dropped down a few inches from its center. There was just enough room for a bird to sit on one of the crossbars. He perched there every evening. By the time I got up in the morning, he had already left for the day, presumably to find food. Since we rarely used this entrance, we humans were only minimally inconvenienced. I just put a piece of cardboard in the middle of the porch floor to catch the spots of whitewash that had alerted us to his presence in the first place. We never turned on the light. And every evening, we would look out the top window of the back door, see the dark outline of his body, and say, “Goodnight, Mr. Finch.”
Then one day in March, I heard one of the most amazing bird songs I’d ever heard in my life. I looked out the kitchen window. On the clothesline sat Mr. Finch, fully engulfed in the promise of Spring. He raised his head to the sky and sang and sang and sang. It seemed as if his little crimson chest could hardly hold all of the sounds that needed to come out. He imprinted his house finch melody into my brain, and I felt honored that he had shared it with me. But I also knew that the song signaled his departure. (I interpreted it as a possible thank-you, too.) Off he went. I said goodbye and wished him well. The rest of the year, I caught only glimpses of him with his female partner as they flew through our back yard, foraging. They had found a better place to build a nest.
I skimmed through the index of Thoreau’s journals to see if I could find an instance when he witnessed the bird-in-the-bush or an over-wintering phenomenon. The closest entry I came upon was from December 14, 1855: “How snug and warm a hemlock looks in the winter!” It was accompanied by his own sketch of the tree. Maybe he too was wondering what it would be like to be a bird and to hold onto an evergreen branch during a snowstorm.
The other day, after reaching Thoreau’s closing image in Walden – “The sun is but a morning star.” – we went to the pond. We left early, driving the two miles over quiet roads and arriving (with permission) at the closed park. One lone angler was on the east shore; we headed for the house site. Outside the book after six weeks in its room, we were headed back to where it began.
At the house site, we crowded into the little post-and-chain rectangle and read a few passages about the March morning in 1845 when Henry Thoreau began building his house. We looked up at the “tall arrowy pines” and in imagination felled a few; we “left the bark on.” Then, we admired the sprawling cairn nearby. Now, it was time for the water and the sun, and each of us went to a sitting place along the banks of the northwest shore. Everything was afire with sunlight, even the undersides of branches had caught the light of the “second sun,” the one that flashes up off the pond. Already the night cold was gone; the new day was afoot. The sun had brought it.
While my students entered their various solar reveries, I watched them from across Thoreau’s cove, and it wasn’t long before I entered a reverie of my own, this one about the power possible from the same sun that lights Walden. Are we not, clever species that we are, able enough to use that power directly instead of continuing with our habit of unearthing its stored remnants and burning them, thereby setting off a cascade of unnecessary change in our atmosphere?
That, in turn, made me think of Thoreau Farm’s solar challenge – to which we have given happily. The challenge seems especially apt, as I emerge from another reading of Walden, where it has been a gift to be brought over time again to this morning star, and then left there on the shores of a new day to choose my direction.
And, now that we have “fallen back” into Standard Time, it is a gift to awaken each morning to the low-angled, November sun as it streams through the leafless trees. Even at this northern latitude and in our shortened days, the sun has power.
That morning, we left the pond warmed; perhaps some of us were newly awake. The sun had worked its daily magic.
I hope you’ll consider helping us bring some of this magic to Thoreau Farm.
By Corinne H. Smith
On Thursday, November 14th, the Thoreau Farm will be honored to welcome author Ken Ilgunas for a reading and signing of his book, “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom,” beginning at 6:30 p.m. His story is truly inspirational. And it involves living in his van in order to save money and to simplify his life.
Ken earned a liberal arts degree from The University at Buffalo in 2006, but he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do from that point forward. In 2007, he was working as a maintenance worker in Alaska, and he read a lot during his down time. One of the books he picked up then was “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. “I found myself nodding to each paragraph,” he wrote, “jotting notes in the margins, underlining whole pages. Thoreau gave me the words to describe what I’d felt for so long. … Thoreau made me feel like I’d been a sane man wrongly assigned to live in a madhouse. He became my guide, whispering wisdom to me through the walls of my cell, confiding to me that he’s ‘convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.’” Thoreau and “Walden” gave Ken the push he needed: one that led in a deliberate direction.
Ken vowed to somehow make it all work: to get a graduate degree, to do it without getting into debt, to live simply, and to move toward doing what he loved to do – whatever that might be. When he moved to North Carolina to attend graduate school at Duke University, Ken decided to become a “vandweller” instead of renting a costly dorm room or apartment. Yes, he lived in his van, in a space not much different from the small house that Thoreau built at Walden Pond. How did Ken accomplish this in the 21st century, and on a big college campus? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. Or come to Thoreau Farm to hear his story in person.
In the ”Economy” chapter of “Walden,” Thoreau wrote: “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account … I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.”
Ken has put Henry David Thoreau’s words and philosophies into actions, in a way that is uniquely his own. He’s an inspiration to writers and to travelers alike; and he seems bent on continuing to be so. If you keep up with him online, you know that he’s already moved on and has already led more adventures. Even as he wrote his first book and pointed it toward publication, he hiked 1,700 miles along the Keystone XL pipeline, from Alberta to Texas. Then he went on an ancestral tour of discovery to Scotland. There’s no stopping Ken Ilgunas. I can’t wait to read what comes next.
In the stairway lobby of the Thoreau Farm, a bulletin board hangs on the wall. Visitors are invited to write down on cards how they have chosen to live deliberately, so that they can share their testimonies with others. Well, Ken’s book and his life are prime examples of how one person can choose to live quite deliberately. And they’re both too big to fit on a single index card. Come hear a sample on Thursday evening.
By Corinne H. Smith
Once the leaves disappear at this time of year, a specific Thoreau quote creeps my mind: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”
You can find this sentence in the first paragraph of the concluding chapter of “Walden.” It starts a series of ruminations debating the act of staying in one place versus the choice to travel. A journey could lead you around the world, where you could even get a chance “to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
Three paragraphs after referring to the “universe,” Henry writes: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.” That’s when the reader says to herself, “Naturally, he needed to leave. He had other things to see and do.” This is the original context of the “universe” quote. Thoreau is leading up to description of his departure from the Walden house. But I feel comfortable applying the saying to other situations.
Three years ago, I paraphrased it in a eulogy for fellow Thoreauvian Edmund Schofield. Ed had a variety of interests and a multitude of friends who were attached to each one of those endeavors. Most of the people had never met before. Most of their lines had never intersected. Ed had been their sole common thread. During the memorial service, we were surprised and gratified – even overcome with joy – to hear fifteen individuals share their memories and their own personal interactions with our mutual friend. They were all different. Ed’s universe had truly been wider than our views of it.
Each fall, the trees begin to bare themselves. Day by day, they unveil views that we either didn’t have before, or ones that we’ve forgotten. All summer long we had bold bright greenery in front of us. Now that it is receding, we can see through the line of shrubbery. We can see the outlines of houses on the other side. We can see fences and walls again. Nature had softened the scene for a few months. These days it drops away to uncover the background, the foundation that was always present.
Suddenly animal homes are also revealed. A robin’s nest is wedged among forked branches of the crab apple in the front yard. The birds are gone, leaving a perfectly smooth cup where the eggs were laid and the fledglings grew. A messy nest for squirrels soars from the top of a red oak. Its residents are still there, warm and dry, and perhaps also confident that they’ve stored enough food to survive the winter. Paper wasps have evidently been living in a maple tree at the edge of the North Bridge in Concord. How many hundreds of visitors walked beneath the nest this summer, unaware? How many redcoats and colonials took aim against one another here (as a matter of historical interpretation, of course) as the resident wasps flew above them to pollinate local gardens and to eat other insects?
This “universe” quote is a metaphor for Life, isn’t it? It’s all about perspective. We have only our own impressions to guide us. We operate solely upon the bits of information that we have available. Rarely do these pieces form an entire story. We have to have patience or perseverance to learn the rest. That’s just the way it is.
Gosh, Henry. It turns out that we don’t have to go anywhere to see something different, or to get the wider view of the universe. We can stand right here and let the seasons change around us. The cats of Zanzibar can remain uncounted. But you knew this all along.
It’s here, this month whose interior symbol might be a single lamp beside a deep-cushioned chair. It is dusk. A mug of tea steams on a table beside the chair; an unread book you have been saving for the whole fall lies there slimly. You are there, or long to be.
But beyond the window, the land emerges, shows off its bones, eyes too now the open sky. And from that sky comes light, abbreviated, yes, but in its slanting brevity, in its course through the now bare trees, in its necessity, the November light is…Um, how to avoid? It is Concord, after all. Go ahead. Um, okay…transcendent.
Now, you’ve done it. The ghost of Henry Thoreau can’t be far away. Here, as if summoned, he is: “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, — not a grain more…The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth.” (Autumnal Tints)
It is another scarlet tree “in [my] eye” before I emerge each morning and hope for the sun near the roofline of south school. One of the two guardian maples in the West Parking Lot has been putting on a show; its companion is racing redly to catch up. When the light and the day are gray, the whole tree vibrates against this dullness; in the sun it is second fire. When I walk home in the dusk, the maple is still lit.
Only in November.
One of my colleagues has a watch that reads October 32nd today. The thought of overextending October should be enough to tighten your embrace of November. It is the wonder-month for light.
Welcome to it.
By Corinne H. Smith
It’s a misty and golden autumn morning. I use the windshield wipers once or twice as I set out to drive to Concord. At least there’s no icy film on the glass. And the grass in the yards is glistening with just dew, not white frost. A freeze is fast approaching, though. You can feel it in the air.
I head to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery first. I haven’t checked in with the 19th-century folks in a while. At this hour, even on a Saturday, I may have the place to myself. I can stand in front of the little marker that says HENRY as long as I want to. I can bring him up to date with whatever I feel like telling him, without being interrupted. Tomorrow I’ll be back here in tour guide mode, with a large group of people surrounding me. I won’t have the opportunity then to catch a private moment.
I pick up a pinecone on my walk up the hill. You can’t visit Henry Thoreau empty-handed and without bringing him a present from Nature. When I reach the Thoreau family plot, I’m shocked to see only a single nut (either butternut or beech) lying in front of his marker. The gravesites have been cleaned. I look around. No one else – not the Hawthornes, Louisa May Alcott, or even the great Mr. Emerson himself – has any gifts lying on or near his/her stone. I place the pinecone in front of HENRY and look around for something else. I find a sprig of tiny acorns that the squirrels and chipmunks have missed. I add it to the patch of raw earth in front of the granite. Then I step back to breathe and absorb the atmosphere.
This glacial ridge is among the most peaceful places in Concord. On this October day, the oaks and maples and pines decorate the edges of the scene with yellows and reds and greens. Squirrels and chipmunks busy themselves in the leaf litter. One squirrel is perched on a nearby branch, barking a warning to his colleagues. “I’m not a threat,” I tell him. “I’m not after you or your food supply.” Somehow, he doesn’t believe me. A gathering of Canada geese honk from behind me, down in the wetland called Cat Pond. A pair of crows – or are they ravens? – silently take off from one tall tree and land at the top of another, across the way. I shiver with a fleeting thought of Edgar Allan Poe. But he’s not here. He’s down in Baltimore.
When I look at the HENRY stone again, my eyes are drawn to its top right-hand corner. The rock-face is a little whiter here, sustaining more wear than from just the action of mere age and weather alone. Someone felt the need to take home more than just a photo. Someone wanted a piece of Henry David Thoreau; and since this wasn’t possible, he/she carved off a slice of his headstone instead. Perhaps the thief (or thieves) were unaware that this isn’t the original 1862 stone. Heck, it may not even be the first replacement for the original stone.
Most of the members of the Thoreau family were first interred down the hill in the New Burying Ground. Today, this plot is as close as you can get to the intersection of Bedford Road and Monument Street and still be on cemetery land. The Dunbars lie there still, beside an empty space. The Thoreaus were moved up to Author’s Ridge in the 1870s. The current large family THOREAU stone was put into place in 1890, when it was donated by Benjamin B. Thatcher of Bangor, Maine. His mother was Henry Thoreau’s cousin, Rebecca Billings Thatcher.
As for the individual name markers, I’m not sure of their vintage. However, the story goes that someone visited this ridge one day and was shocked to find that the HENRY stone was missing. (While I can’t locate documentation to confirm the details at the moment, this probably happened during the late 1960s or early 1970s. The jail site marker was stolen at least twice in the same time period.)
Presumably, the stone had been stolen. Arrangements were quickly made to get a replacement installed with as little fanfare as possible. As a result, the one we see today has been standing there only for a handful of decades. A friend now tells me that the HENRY stone may not even sit in the right place within the family plot. Egad! How can anything so simple become so complex?
In the end, this marker – like the ones at Walden Pond, and elsewhere – is merely a symbol for something much larger. We look at it, and we think. We leave little mementos behind in silent tribute. We feel satisfaction when we do this.
I leave Sleepy Hollow believing that there’s enough of Henry David Thoreau’s legacy for every one of us to share. We need not be greedy. We need not take slices of stone to make an intimate connection. But if you ever see an old granite HENRY stone offered at a yard sale, please let me know.
Page 29 of Walden is loose. It slips from its place, dips into flight and begins the seesaw motion of falling to the floor. Instinctively I grab for it…as if it were glass and might shatter when it hits. I miss; it floats, lands, settles. There. Solo.
I lean over and do what we do with newspaper spread over the floor when we paint a room. I start to read: Penobscot Indians in Concord, “living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them…” It’s the Shelter section with its vestiges of a wild past and it modern, various “boxes” and their landlords “dogging you for rent.”
“I am far from jesting,” Henry writes, reminding us that he jests often, and that he is often “far” from expected opinion. “Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but it cannot be so disposed of.” Well, that explains why this initial chapter will stretch on for another 50 pages, testing attention spans and taxing interest before we finally get to spend time at the pond. We would know what’s “necessary” before taking up residence, after all.
The moment interests me, and I turn this copy of Walden on edge. Four more pages slip from their moorings; there is a scatter of Walden on the floor. And now it occurs to me that this book is so exquisitely written and structured that any one page opens out to the whole book’s universe of thought. Each leaf suggests a fullness of thought, an examined life caught in print.
I gather the fallen pages, slot them back into place and resume reading. I slip through familiar passages. Without looking at the numbers, I know what page I’m on. Then, my mind snags of something new, something unremembered. On the page before my falling leaf, I find this:
Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay out doors, even in the wet and cold. It plays house, as well as horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave?
Here, in the season of fallen leaves and widening view, I see the “shelving rocks” off to the side of the trail, and I tend toward them.
Perhaps, I think, I’ll some day read Walden as its leaves fall.
Oct 17th: The idea first comes to me as I walk back from school a little before two in the afternoon on this blissful fall day. Why not, a voice whispers, run out by the pond, and why not take the heat of that run into the cooling Walden waters. By the time I reach the Fairhaven trails a little after four, the whisper has grown bold: “Listen,” it says, “how many more days like this will you get?”
I defer the existential question for the seasonal one. “Not many,” I answer. “If any.”
The day: clear, dry blue, with temps in the low 70s and the slightest beeze; I am returned to the season of ease.
So, after 30-some minutes of hoofing through the light-strewn woods, I circle down to the pond and my favorite little beach on the southwest side across from Thoreau’s Cove. There in a slat of sunlight, I strip off shoes and shirt and wade tenderly over the pebbles beneath the transparent water. The water knows its season, even if the air has been gulled; it’s chilly, somewhere in the 50s. It’s dunk-and-gasp water. But after that, if I stay still and let the envelope around me warm, it becomes again bask-and-look water. And so I do.
First at Henry’s far shore, still bathed in sun, then at the surface around me. Oak and beech leaves and pine needles float by me from west to east; those leaves with curled tips catch the light breeze and sail rapidly, while the rest go languidly by. Here, a foot in front of me is a tiny emerald fly whose right wing has broken the surface tension, and so he is mired, his free wing beating. He floats over my hand, and it rises whitely from the depths, lifting precisely, breaking the surface, and it catches him perfectly, carrying him free, even as the water sluices away. The fly rights himself and begins to walk his new land, clambering over the small hairs, walking up finger. I am, I think, the god of emerald flies. A little divinity to be sure, but here, immersed in this pond, with this fly walking now toward the uplands of my wrist, I am god (note the small “g”).
I walk from the water, and, as I coax the little green fly toward a still-green leaf, he lifts away, vanishes.
All gods get left, I think, as I leave the pond.
On the way back through the yellow-leaf woods by Fairhaven Bay, I flush two pileated woodpeckers, who laugh first and then fly. They know.
Note: It’s not often that a search of various sites and sources can’t turn up one of my sightings, but such is the case here. I have no little green flyer to show you, but I offer assurance that we both were there…for a short while.
By Corinne H. Smith
It happened to me again recently, when I was quietly talking about Thoreau with someone. She said that she remembered reading the book “On Walden Pond” in college. Yikes! She meant “Walden,” of course: more formally, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods.” But she automatically merged the title with the more recent movie/play, “On Golden Pond,” probably without even noticing or thinking about it. She’s not the first person to do this. I just smiled and shook my head to myself.
The phenomenon must have started soon after 1981, when Ernest Thompson’s play “On Golden Pond” was released as a feature film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, and Jane Fonda. You no doubt know the story. Aging and retired college professor Norman Thayer and his wife Ethel visit their lakeside cabin in Maine for what could easily be the last summer. They entertain and get to know their soon-to-be step-grandson. Their estranged daughter finally makes her peace with her father, although this act doesn’t come easily. The film eventually earned three Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, and it came in second in ticket sales in 1981. Only “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was more popular at the box office that season.
When we meet and greet people and talk about Henry Thoreau — anywhere, anytime, and not only in Concord — they may mis-speak and call Thoreau’s book, “On Walden Pond.” Obviously, they mix the two entities. They know that Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. They’ve heard a similar phrase in the movie title “On Golden Pond,” and so they combine the two, without even realizing that they’ve done it. I estimate that at least 20% of our public does this.
Some Thoreau scholars and enthusiasts are bugged or even aggravated by this recurring mistake. They can be quick to judge and to correct folks. After all, the literary classic starred Henry Thoreau, and not Henry Fonda. I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer chastise anyone or insist upon proper nomenclature. I just continue the conversation and call the book “Walden” and let it go. I hope that the other person’s subconscious mind hears and homes in on the variation as I say the correct title.
I thought that this practice would fade with a younger generation who may not have seen the 1981 movie. But then a TV version was released in 2001, featuring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And “On Golden Pond” stage shows and related initiatives continue to be held everywhere. It seems unlikely that the tale will ever leave the American cultural scene. This is good, because it’s a great story.
When you stop to consider the two, it turns out that they have more in common than you may see at first. Both are about a man living by a lake in New England. The setting is remote enough to be a bit isolated, but near enough to a town for supplies and society. The man knows the place intimately, and he shares its natural resources with a young person, especially through fishing. “Walden” develops a number of metaphors and analogies in its text, and it seems that “On Golden Pond” borrows a few in its script as well, especially whenever a loon appears.
The big difference is that Henry Thoreau is in his twenties and is generally contemplating the beginnings of his adult life. Norman Thayer is considering the end. Their purposes and approaches are different. Or are they? At their cores, both pieces are about Life and experiences, and about what challenges lie ahead. Never mind the fine line between fiction and nonfiction.
I decided to contact playwright Ernest Thompson to see what he might make of this mix-up. He hadn’t been aware of it. “If there’s solace to be found on the shores of either idyllic body of water,” he said, “it is, I believe, that all of us, occasionally anyway, yearn for a sanctuary away from the madding crowds and the materialism of our increasingly spiritually-corrupt culture.” He said that “On Golden Pond” is “also about the journey to enlightenment, six of them actually, and how those travelers are forced to learn to share the road and adapt their pride and philosophies to align more successfully with others.” As for a connection to “Walden” and its pond and famous resident, he noted that Norman did quote from a few well-known authors. “Had I foreseen the problem,” he said, “I would’ve thrown in a little Thoreau instead of Dumas and Twain.”
Will the instances of the “On Walden Pond” merger be further perpetuated, now that I’ve brought the issue to light? I don’t know. I take the risk. The book and the movie may be forever intertwined. And that may not be a bad thing.
It’s a mild October day at school and the trees are saying, “Look at me”; it’s no day to while away inside, where we have been rooting in some of Walden’s density. “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact,” Thoreau writes near the end of Where I lived, and What I Lived For, “you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career.”
I look up, describe a scimitar and suggest that now’s the time: “Go out onto the back field near the river and find a natural object and get face to face to it. See if you can maintain focus on it for 15 minutes. I think you’ll survive, and if you do, we’ll get together and report back.” Walden, of course, can be read as a report back from such outings.
And so out we went.
Here are excerpts from some of their reports back. Sample a few or read them all:
Natalie: When the wind sweeps through the willow branches lifting and spinning them, contrast between the two sides of the leaves highlights the wind even more. The branches seem to be a physical representation of the wind. Most of the time the wind played with the branches swinging them side to side as though the branches were one large gauzy curtain, but a few times, a large gust sent them dancing and bouncing as individual boughs, the ends flying up to meet the upper parts of the tree. Though I did not think I was concentrating very hard, the time seemed to pass more quickly than I thought because at the end of what felt like a short amount of time, not twelve minutes, the grinding of the bell workings (that you can hear right before the bell rings when it is very quiet) startled me.
Matt: Before deciding that I was really going to start, I peaked over at Ben, who was carefully studying a tree. He looked funny… I knew I wouldn’t make it the whole time without tearing that round green whatever apart. “That is a testament to my not being able to sit still,” I thought. It isn’t a huge problem, just something that I get embarrassed about when it gets pointed out. It seems kind of childish. My goal was to make something thoughtful of my time with green whatever. That’s what Thoreau would do. It would’ve helped if I knew what it was. I knew it was natural, and it was oddly round, but I couldn’t fake any grand revelations… As I mentioned in class, I did think about how it could have been explained mathematically, but that thought was brief. At that point it was too late. I had already started digging my nail into the surface, squishier than I would’ve liked.
Phoebe: Throughout the 12-or-so minutes of the exercise, sitting still allowed my focus to shift, letting in a stream of thoughts normally unheard. It occurred to me that this was the first time in a good while – more than a week, certainly – that I had just sat somewhere, on my own, without homework or Facebook or any other distractions. I think that the speed of our lives has increased exponentially since Thoreau’s day. If he lamented (in “Walking”) those folk who did not have more than half an hour each day to spend taking walks, what might he think of us? I think that one of the reasons that Thoreau’s works are so popular is that his message has not merely remained relevant over time, it has gotten more and more so over the years.
Charlie: In Thoreau’s Walden, he compares the discovery of truth to a scimitar held to your forehead, splitting your perspective into two before destroying it entirely. To Thoreau, truth is something that completely changes your perception of an idea. In that sense, I suppose that I did not encounter truth in the time that I spent gazing at a tree on the edge of the soccer field. My discovery was less a scimitar held to my head, and was more akin to a butter knife. My perception of the tree changed during my viewing of it, but the change was not quite so drastic that it destroyed my previous idea of the tree. What I discovered during my viewing was that what I saw of the tree and my understanding of the tree came solely from my perspective, or how I chose to view it. Had I viewed if from its opposite side, I would have come away with an entirely different understanding of what the tree was.
Ben: This tree specifically was one that seemed to be incredibly complex. When I was not focusing on the local tenants of the tree I saw its limb that had been cut off; most likely due to some reason that made it an inconvenience for the academy. I cannot think of a viable reason as to why the limb was cut off but I am also not an expert on trees. But I digress, one of the main areas I focused on was not the severed area, but instead it was how the tree had grown around it. I have never seen this phenomenon, but I have seen pictures of trees growing around street signs and so on. The tree had started to flow over and onto the stump, it was a shape that made the tree seem as though it were full of fluid. But yet it was dense and covered in bark. The tree was growing over itself and reclaiming the space that it once inhabited. This was so visually fascinating that it took up most of the time we were outside. Something I drew from this specific example is nature does not stop for anything. It grows and adapts to what occur around it.
Lauren: But what really throws me off about apple trees and makes me feel the need to speculate as to how they survive is that they seem so friendly. Most wild plants and animals seem competitive and behave as if every other living thing is their enemy. Apple trees, however, seem domesticated. I hardly ever see them in the wild, but they’re often decorative and make frequent appearances in children’s books. Even more so than other fruit trees, apple trees are friendly, and that seems bad for survival. If a plant just lets everything eat it, it will die. But perhaps friendliness is a valid strategy for survival. Once humans domesticate a species, it is pretty much guaranteed not to die out. I sometimes wonder if domesticated cats and dogs aren’t bored and itching to escape, but they are guaranteed a decently long life.
Isaac: I reclined at the base of a tree and settled in between its roots. It was convenient that the first natural object I placed my hands on was a twig with three leaves, for Thoreau uses the number as a motif of sorts throughout Walden. I felt lucky. I had found a relevant symbol and was pleased that I could spend the 10 minutes studying rather than searching. But the roots were too comfortable, my position too sprawled out, and the temperature too mild that I tossed the twig aside and closed my eyes. As I stretched out, the hum of a nearby Hanscom plane crept towards the fields. “All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre…” Thoreau writes in “Sounds,” and while the plane buzzed overhead very far away and at a great altitude, I knew, as a CA student, that buzzes could quickly erupt into roars. The volume increased as the distance between the plane and me decreased (“While these things go up other things come down”), and, as it puts a pause into classroom discussion, the grand engines snapped any tranquility I was feeling. I sat up again and returned to examining my arbitrary trio.
I found that, as the plane flew away once more, the decrescendo left me in a greater silence than before the plane had arrived. Silence is a peculiar concept, relative and unattainable, yet we treat it as a constant. When the AC in the gym turns off in the middle of exams, silence permeates the space more loudly than any song through a speaker. Thoreau notes that unpleasant sounds, such as trains, are better heard from a distance, while natural sounds, like birds or wind, are beautiful to indulge. But silence is as much a sound as a train or a bird, and, if anything, more valuable, for silence can always become more “silent.” The birds can stop chirping, the wind can stop trickling pine needles; the pencils can stop writing. Sound is relative, yet Thoreau treats it as something absolute. A bird’s chirping usually sounds pleasant, but that is often after leaving a previously loud, or perhaps industrial setting. But as a plane flies away, I do not want to hear a bird chirping. I want this newfound silence to remain.
These and a number of other responses made me glad we had gone out to see the world, to try to envision it via a single fact. We were all that much closer to understanding the ideas and experiences behind the long string of code that is Walden.
By Corinne H. Smith
I see two of those black and red-brown fuzzy caterpillars in a mullein leaf on this bare edge-hill, which could not have blown from any tree, I think. They apparently take refuge in such places. One on the railway causeway where it is high, in the open meadow. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal, January 24, 1858
They’re on the move! In these days of autumn, we most often see woolly bear caterpillars marching across the asphalt in front of our cars. They sometimes make driving difficult, if we have heart enough to avoid them. (Imagine the explanation: “Honestly, officer, I had to swerve because of the woolly bear. I can’t imagine how that tree caught my right front bumper.”)
When I was young and found one of these guys in our backyard, I picked it up and let it curl into a fuzzy ball in the palm of my hand. My father would say, “Take it in and show Mom.” I gleefully did this. It was always good for a shriek. Then I had to carry the caterpillar right back outside and place it back in the grass, as per my mother’s orders. After a while, it would unroll itself and go on with whatever business it had been doing until my small fingers found it and interrupted its task.
Isn’t it interesting that we recognize these fellows almost solely in their caterpillar state? In the spring, the woolly bear becomes the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), with tan wings decorated with a few black spots. No traits from its larva state remain, and no clues would ever lead us to connect the two. I guess a tan moth isn’t flashy enough to attract our attention. A black and brown-banded critter walking by is much more eye-catching. Maybe its fuzziness pleases us, too. It has a teddy-bear quality that makes us want to pick it up and hold it.
Like Henry Thoreau, I’ve seen a few woolly bears during the winter months. Then, their colors create a startling contrast to an otherwise gray and white world. But it is in October that I most often spy woolly bears. After I watched one going about its business on a crisp October afternoon, I wrote a series of haiku stanzas as a tribute to it.
Black and rust and black
Creeping through the just-mowed lawn
Heading for shelter
Do you see the goal
Goldenrods three feet away
Mark the meadow’s edge
Each ridge in the grass
Is a hill that must be climbed
And then wiggled down
You are ground bound here
Some day you will be transformed
And will fly away
As a tiger moth
You will float above the grass
And pause at flowers
But on this fall day
You are called to the green stems
That look munchable
Safe travels, small one
I watch you touch the milkweeds
And then disappear
The woolly bear has also been credited with having as much meteorological knowledge as a groundhog in February. Folklore states that the width of the middle band indicates how difficult the upcoming winter will be. The wider the ribbon of brown, the milder the winter. Some scientists have actually taken measurements of hundreds of caterpillar bodies over the courses of many years, in order to prove or disprove the theory. Their results are still inconclusive.
I’m glad. I prefer that woolly bears remain mysterious, fuzzy, and portable enough for a child’s palm. I make every attempt to brake or to drive around them, as they (and we) march toward winter.
“I rejoice that there are owls…All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp, where the double spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and the rabbit skulk beneath; but now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature here.” Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden
I have no photo. I was running. And yet I have the composite memory of a long minute; in that memory I work to keep the bird at real size. It expands toward spirit.
It’s surprising to see gray wings low in the forest in the late afternoon light that slants into October. And these wings, motion only to my peripheral left, were the gray of no light at all. Still, I pulled up short, even as the bird pulled up also into the branches of a small oak thirty feet away. Goshawk, I thought, paging through the short sequence of large gray birds I know. Hawk of the deep woods, a goshawk would have been enough; the few I’d seen had winged by with a presence that reminded me how ground-borne I am.
But each of these hawks had been of the canopy, overhead birds. What was this? I walked single step at a time through scrub toward this large gray bird who stayed put at head level. Odd, I thought. Why doesn’t he fly?
At twenty feet I paused, parted the small branches and peered through the last small tree between us; the gray seemed an absence in air. The bird’s large head swiveled slowly to meet my eyes. What eyes! Glint of yellow dotted by a dark circle in each, then a penumbral gray that stretched to the edges of a rounded head – owl eyes.
Lazily it seemed, grudgingly, and yes, soundlessly, he lifted from the branch, pumped his wings twice and settled into a small pine, now a little closer, facing me.
Drawn by this presence, but not wanting to spur flight again – it had seemed so unwanted – I stayed put. Both in our tiny white pines, we watched each other. Then, after a long minute I began backing away, eyes still fixed on the owl. When I turned to resume my way, the gray owl was still and there, like a giant’s thumb as he reaches from the dense forest brush into this world.
Note: Once home, I went to bird books and then to the myriad photos of the internet in search of a match. Of the seven owls native to Massachusetts, none came close. The Great Horned Owl had the size, but this gray owl had a completely rounded, hornless head. Under “occasional visitors” I found the Great Gray Owl, boreal inhabitant, the colored-in patch of his range a long way northwest in Canada. The nearest sighting I could conjure came from southeastern New Hampshire. “Occasional” seems to suit this visitor from the other side.
By Corinne H. Smith
When I go to the river the day after the principal fall of leaves … I find my boat all covered, bottom and seats, with the leaves of the Golden Willow under which it is moored, and I set sail with a cargo of them rustling under my feet. If I empty it, it will be full again to-morrow. I do not regard them as litter, to be swept out, but accept them as suitable straw or matting for the bottom of my carriage. ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
The last time I visited Thoreau Farm in Concord, I parked my car in the lot behind the house. As usual, I left both front windows open several inches. Then I spent a few hours chatting with the visitors who came to see the house where Henry was born.
When I was ready to leave later, I opened the driver’s side door and spied something gold sitting on my seat.
It was a common enough-looking leaf, and I couldn’t immediately identify it. It had a pretty basic shape with very serrated edges. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought any tree guidebooks with me on this trip.
I looked around for the most likely sender of this gift. In the thicket right in front of my car grew a skinny tree with distinctive bark that resembled a layer of burnt potato chips. Burnt chips, B.C., Black Cherry. (This is a shorthand acronym used in outdoor education lingo.) I looked at the leaf again and thought, Yes, this does look like a black cherry leaf, and it must have come from that tree. I put it aside for safe keeping. I figured I could look at it later and remember where it came from, anytime I wanted to. I gave the tree a nod of thanks before I got into the car and turned the ignition.
Wouldn’t this be a great way to collect leaves? Just keep your car windows open and let them blow inside. I thought of Henry’s rustling boatload, as he described what he found in “Autumnal Tints.” (This is a wonderful essay that you should read sometime in the next few weeks.) If gathering fallen leaves in such a large but unusual container was good enough for Henry and his “carriage,” it could work for us, too.
Since then, I have left my car windows open a few inches every day: wide enough for leaves, and narrow enough to thwart thieves. (It’s probably good that we haven’t had much rainfall lately, too.) I must not be parking close enough to any other friendly and sharing trees, however. No other leaves have blown into my car. I’m almost disappointed. But the absence of any others makes this lone black cherry leaf even more special.
Thoreau teaches us to take joy in simple things. I see this as the moral to this simple story.
Note: This is a tad long, but some walks are longer than others, as are some memories. On this day (9/29) five years ago, I walked up into memory…and then down. I like to think Henry Thoreau would have approved of such a day on foot.
Perhaps the richest gift (and they are many) I’ve received from reading Thoreau’s words has been his certainty about the value of seeing the world on foot. As I’ve crossed each year’s days, I’ve tried to set aside time for the foot-won world. Five years ago, after receiving the gift of a sabbatical, I thought it was time for a longer walk. And so, as almost everyone I knew turned to the daily rounds of school, I turned uphill on the Pine Cobble Trail in Williamstown, MA, bound for New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Part of my hope was to turn 60 in motion. That I would be walking away to come back, that, even as I climbed the slopes out of Williamstown I would be walking home, brought me into the land of paradox. I would attempt to walk both ways truly at the same time. I, like my students, sometimes groan at writers’ fondness for posing opposites of simultaneous truth, for complicating our hope of finding “the” answer. “Just tell me,” an exasperated student will say sometimes as we consider a thorny passage from Homer or Thoreau or Woolf, and I will go gnomic and quiet and smile a little…and wait for her to take the next step. So it was for me throughout the landscape of the Green-going-to-White Mountains, along a September path across ancient continents into an old world and a next life.
Some days later, on my 60th birthday, I awoke and looked up at the slopes of Mt Moosilauke. The first of the big climbs in the Whites, Moosilauke is also a family mountain. I had climbed it more than 50 times, in all sorts of family configurations, and, as I looked up, I knew also that my father’s ashes were on the summit, scattered there only a few years back. It also occurred to me that, though I’d climbed this mountain often, I’d only climbed from the Glencliff side once before, and that had been some 31 years back as a father-son celebration of my father’s 60th birthday. I would go up these years later along a trail of singular memory:
Between 1977 and now, brush has crowded the fields at the base of the trail, and I keep trying to align memory with what’s before me. Every so often the pictures match; then I walk over the edge into today. At the first brook I pause to filter two liters of water, and I clip their five pounds to my pack. Given the right weather, I plan to stay the night on top, which is far from water. This trail is direct as it pounds up across contours, and I know this added weight will drag at me, but a waterless camp is no camp at all, especially with the need to replenish the sweat I’m already kicking out. It’s also a rise of 3700 feet, nearly double anything I’ve trundled up in a single climb over the last 200 miles, and so I settle into a slow rhythm knowing I’ll have to sustain it all day.
The morning passes in a slow monotony of steps. I’ve expected more memory and emotion, but it is mostly thoughtless grinding. At 3500’ the trail bends left into a half-mile traverse before taking the final 1000’ vertical feet more or less head on. Along the jumbled rocks of the traverse, each step requires placement and balance and repeatedly I have to set the outriggers of my poles before edging forward. The day cools with altitude; clouds flirt with the ridge; the wind insists. On the final climb, I feel some excessive toll being collected and begin to lose patience. I’m tired of approach; I want simply to be there. The trail rises around the next bend. Then around the next.
Dogs have appeared and buoyed me throughout my life, and so I’m only mildly surprised when I hear the jingle of collar-tags behind me. Two dogs, a lab and a smaller mutt, come lightfooting it over the rocks; they sniff and greet me while I rest over my poles. I look back down for their people, but no one turns the last corner; the dogs look up at me, apparently waiting. I talk to them, ruffle their fur. For the next (the last) quarter-mile, they walk with me, one in front, the other behind; bracketed by canid spirit, I climb. There, finally, is the weathered sign atop the tilted post; there’s the old carriage road I’ve walked fifty times; there is the path of memory. The dogs disappear back downslope; then they reappear with their three people, two young men and a woman from Vermont. Standing in the cloud-filtered sunshine, we exchange pleasantries and, when they hear I’ve walked here from their state they ask if I need food. I pat my full pack and decline, and then their fourteen-footed posse pushes off upridge, and I am alone at this junction.
Memories arrive in a rush – they feature amblers of all ages and eras: my father’s engineer’s cap drips rain as he and Lucille spoon jam from a jar with their cold fingers; I note the steel-gray fringe on my father’s “brown” hair as he looks east toward Mt. Washington; my stepmother Susan leads two children left at the junction and downhill; a lithe, packless edition of me canters by, shirtless in running shoes; my cousin’s thirteen-year-old son, out in front of the family pack, stops to consider the right way down, then makes the wrong choice; my mother unharnesses her manila pack and gives me the day’s final Snickers; my brother makes a rare cameo on the heights; our dog Sherlock emerges from the close-set firs and gobbles a nameless piece of carrion; our next dog Elmo sits placidly and watches for any move toward the food-trove; before we pitch joyfully down the snow-covered trail, Lucille and I tighten the bindings on our snowshoes; a teen pulls up out of breath, looks back over his shoulder at the empty trail. I consider him.
I turn up the empty trail. I am brushing by more memories, the ways we’ve always walked, and, after a trudging morning, my mind is suddenly thick with emotion. I burst into tears. “I want to go home,” I say aloud. But really I want to go back, and in a sense, amid the jostle of selves and others, I have.
What remains is suddenly simple: the mile-walk along this old, rock-finned bridle-path; the visit to the stubble of stones and remnant walls on the summit, and then the last steps north out to the sixth cairn beyond. There, as water bleeds from the surrounding cloud, I wonder what to say to my dad. Well, there’s an offering of “Thanks” for showing me this rumpled land, for leading me up. If I must be left, if I must be alone, up here is a good place. That seems right. But not the last word. Pressed up into the belly of this cloud, I wait. “It’s all good,” I say…or someone says. The words come from elsewhere, and then, as I look up at the head-high cairn I’ve come to, I remember they are my father’s final words. It’s all good.
My plan to stay the night is scotched by the persistent cloud-cap. I would be soaked in 30 minutes and, in the 40-degree temperatures, hypothermic soon after. I turn to our usual path up, the Gorge Brook Trail, and set off at pace, hoping to reach its base in time to cadge a ride from a day-hiker. Lincoln lies eleven miles to the east of the trailhead, and there I can find a motel and then catch the 7:20 a.m. bus for Boston. Even with the protection of poles, my hurried descent bangs away at my bad shin – it will be a swollen sacrifice to the god of coming down. But I am clear about where I am and where I’m headed, and, when I drop below the clouds I can see a great distance.
So as I rode the bus south on September’s final day five years ago, it came clear to me that I walk and climb not to get away, but to go home—to a region of best self, land-self, upland-me, kin of rock, water-seep, pine.
By Corinne H. Smith
The country was new to me beyond Fitchburg. In Ashburnham and afterward, as we were whirled rapidly along, I noticed the woodbine (Ampelopsis quinquefolia), its leaves now changed, for the most part on dead trees, draping them like a red scarf. It was a little exciting, suggesting bloodshed, or at least a military life, like an epaulet or sash, as if it were dyed with the blood of the trees whose wounds it was inadequate to stanch. For now the bloody autumn was come, and an Indian war-fare was waged through the forest.
~ Henry David Thoreau, in the second paragraph of A Yankee in Canada
Henry Thoreau wrote these words while outlining his 1850 trip from Concord to Montreal, begun on Wednesday, September 25. He and friend Ellery Channing had ridden west along the Fitchburg Railroad to the city of Fitchburg, where they switched to the Cheshire Railroad to continue northwest to Bellows Falls, Vermont. As they passed through the town of Ashburnham, they saw woodbine – the vine we commonly call Virginia creeper – hanging in the trees. It was noticeable, since it’s one of the first plants to turn color in autumn. And what a brilliant color it becomes!
Throughout the course of summer, Virginia creeper disguises itself in shades of green, blending in with whatever vegetation surrounds it. Or, it too closely resembles ivy – English or poison – by climbing walls and trees, or by lining footpaths. In these cases, we don’t give it much thought except to count the number of leaves, and to be relieved at seeing five (Virginia creeper) instead of three (poison ivy).
But now it’s the time of the year for the big reveal. Voila! What was hiding in plain sight has now established itself as something utterly different. All of a sudden the vine turns shades of deep maroon and crimson. Now we can see the trails it has followed, as it has advanced all summer long. It has creeped across rock walls, up the sides of buildings, up utility poles and street signs, and into all kinds of trees. And it has a head start on the color wheel. It turns before its host tree does: perhaps for our benefit, so that we can locate and identify it before the rest of the leaves grow gold or red.
Whenever I witness this phenomenon, I’m taken back to a time in my past when I lived in another city. We moved into a house there in November of that year. The neighborhood included a fair number of trees, open spaces, and wild places. A few maples from next door shaded our yard nicely. Rose of Sharon shrubs were common, too. When spring arrived, our part of town became very green.
A few blocks away stood an assorted grouping of trees. I never took the time to figure out what species were represented here. But I always made a point to at least glance in their direction, whenever I drove past. My admiration continued well into summer. What a variety of bright and leafy green hues they had! Then September arrived, and SURPRISE! The trees suddenly donned several thick red scarves and drapes, just like in Mr. Thoreau’s description. Who would have suspected that Virginia creeper had been hiding all along within their branches? I had to go back home and get my camera.
When I chatted about the new beauty of these trees to other local folks, some of them expressed concern and even dismay at the sight. They thought the Virginia creeper was going to kill the trees. They thought that someone should do something about it, and that the vine should be pulled out. But no! I insisted. It’s just Virginia creeper, now known to scientists as Parthenocissus quinquefolia. It isn’t hurtful. This is a natural occurrence that humans need not interfere with. Besides, it could remain our special secret for at least eleven months. And then we could be astonished again, whenever the next September rolled around.
I moved away from that neighborhood many years ago. I haven’t driven past those trees in a good long while. But I hope no one saw fit to touch them or the Virginia creeper; and I hope that street continues to offer surprise to passers-by at this time of year.
It’s not often that free time and a jewel of a day coincide. Typically, we watch a limitless blue sky and its windless, late summer light from behind the smeared glass of work. One of the most common fantasies I hear as colleagues siphon off coffee on such a morning begins like this: “I can’t wait to have a day like this off, so…” And then he or she trundles off to one of work’s rectangles.
Thursday, September 19th sets up this way: it’s cool and windless in the morning; the humidity is low and the trees and river look sharp edged in the clear, slanting light. I wonder, wonder I do – what’s my day looks like once my late-morning class is through? A few reshuffled appointments and a pile of abandoned papers later the afternoon looks as clear as that slat of sky between the high pines.
And so, a little after noon, I step between two trees onto the Wright Forest trails behind Walden Pond with an eye on a long ramble whose route I’ll make up as I go. A quarter of an hour in, I reach the unmarked turn-off for the old race course whose crooked oval persists these hundred-plus years after the amusement park on Walden’s west end faded. I decide to canter a circuit of the old course, where I am the slowest horse; still, I am also the only horse, and so I finish first. My prize is more trail-time.
I’m soon at the pond, where I amble along its north shore and climb over its uptics before easing through the growing congestion on the east-beach side. A few school-groups note the pond dutifully in journals, while their tech-addicted peers hide from teacher-eyes in the shadows and expect from their screens. An assortment of other refugees from work and other obligations loll pondside. Almost everyone is looking out over the water. Along the old esker that leads me away, I see flashes of pond through the trees, and then I reach the slope leading up to Emerson’s Cliff, a small crag at suitable remove from the nearby bustle.
As ever, no one’s here, but a breeze stirs and the air is cooler atop this mini-mountain. Down its rocky backside, the trail enters an absent world; the worn track says others walk here, but I’ve never seen anyone. How quickly we leave a crowd behind when we deviate from the usual rounds. I near the beaver lodge in the swampy dell below the railroad tracks and see the old gnawed trees tipped into the water. Then, across the tracks again and into the big pines of Lincoln. “Why not,” a wandering voice asks, “visit Misery?”
Ten minutes bring me to the left to Mt. Misery. Misery’s backstory has eluded me, but the name seems inapt, even inept, for such a fine cone of stone in big woods.
I’m retracing part of my route and sweat rolls from my running; “the pond, repeat after me, the pond,” says some interior voice, and I repeat, “the pond.” Fifteen minutes later I’ve reached a sliver of beach on the southwest shore. The water level is low, but, as ever, the greeny water is clear, even after a summer of sloshing by the lotion-slathered leviathan that is Walden’s daily beach crowd. What resistant purity. Shoes off, shirt too. Step, step, step, plunge – pale critter submerging. I swim a few strokes, let my feet fall and note that the drop-off is already over my head. My toes tread in water five degrees cooler than the surface. Belly to the sky, I float and let the land’s heat and the step step of minutes wash away.
Some time later, I am in four feet of water with my eyes a few inches above the skin of the surface. Across from me is Thoreau’s Cove, its guardian sandbar speckled with waders; distant kayaks glide forward like swans; the pines point to the sky, which looks immense. A rogue duck disturbs this reverie, paddling a few feet from my nose. Perhaps I look like a pale stone with a token scrap of moss on top. The duck pays me no notice. Instead, he is avid for something on the unrippled surface; he keeps stabbing his bill right and left, paddling back and forth in front of me. Am I being taunted? I begin to wonder. Perhaps this is simply a quest for some duck-truth. I look more closely and see finally that he is hoovering up tiny flies from the surface. This warm day has called up a new hatch, I suppose, and those that break the surface-tension are mired in the water. Perfect picking for my duck. A tiny fly drops lightly onto the water an inch before me and doesn’t dent the water; he lifts off again. The duck gathers his less light-footed brethren.
As I’ve watched, the water-envelope around me has warmed. I stir, and a little cool brushes me. In my crouched stance, in my clear water with its skin stretching out and out, I am effortlessly calm. The day seems paused. Soon, I’ll emerge, drip dry, towel sand from my feet with my shirt and put on my shoes for the Fairhaven trail back to my car. I will find that I’ve been out for the Thoreau-approved four hours.
But for now, let’s leave me here duck lucky and up to my eyes in Walden.
Note: for a superb history of the pond see Walden Pond – a History by Barksdale Maynard.
Over the September Sea
Two miles out
at right angles but
he is working the breeze
from my left
he too is crossing
this broad sound though
he is headed home
and I am
at horizon’s island
on the other side
of the slow rise and
fall of the sea’s
chest. My hands
one stroke two
my boat knifes
wave after wave.
Well his wings
lack rhythm and
his flight’s the sort
that made the math-
chaos he seems
the wind’s hand but
he vanishes southwest
of this moment
Early in our semester of reading Henry Thoreau’s work, I ask students what they know or have heard about our central author. Invariably, someone or ones will say, “he was a hermit, who lived at Walden Pond.” And soon after that, another will say, “and he was a hypocrite because he came into town for dinner all the time.”
“False, true, false and true,” I’ll say in answer to this grab-bag of “facts,” and I’ll ask them to consider the man they meet in his essay “Walking.” In his essay’s opening, Thoreau is clear that he is making an “extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one,” and what follows is true to this promise. But often readers – and those more distant from his writings, those on the outer circle of rumor – read a few lines and want Thoreau to walk his talk.
Answer lies, as it often does, deeper in the woods of the essay. Having established the need to walk, direction and what may appear for the “walker errant,” Thoreau thinks about himself:
For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the State into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it.
Here, we decide after some parsing of words, lies answer: Henry Thoreau would cross and recross the border between the civil and wild worlds, and he would bring what the poet Robert Bly has called “news of the universe” to that civil world. And he would use the civil world’s gift of language to spread this “news.” And from his “border life” Thoreau would also provide his readers with perspective, a gift of vision that requires some distance.
In Thoreau’s daily walks and returns, the optimistic among us may even find threads of thought that draw the civil and wild worlds closer together, that suture the false divide that often separates people and Nature. So it can be along the rich overlap of the border, which, if walked enough, can be a causeway to a unified world.
By Corinne H. Smith
What affinity is it brings the goldfinch to the sunflower – both yellow – to pick its seeds? … In a day or two the first message will be conveyed or transmitted over the magnetic telegraph through this town, as a thought traverses space, and no citizen of the town shall be aware of it. The atmosphere is full of telegraphs equally unobserved. We are not confined to Morse’s or House’s or Bain’s line. Raise some sunflowers to attract the goldfinches, to feed them as well as your hens. What a broad and loaded, bounteously filled platter of food is presented this bon-vivant!
~ Thoreau’s journal, September 2, 1851
It was not time wasted when I spent a whole weekend watching a set of goldfinches who were harvesting sunflowers at Thoreau Farm. Animals are intriguing when they can ignore human intrusion and focus instead on their own specialties.
The three sunflowers growing in our heirloom garden were top-heavy with seed. Their heads were beginning to turn toward the ground. The birds of the neighborhood were undeterred by this potential challenge of gravity. Somehow they knew it was time to get to work.
At first, they were just flashes of yellow and black dipping past me, swooping around the garden and chirruping with each dip. (Thoreau referred to the sound as a “twitter,” back in the days before social media changed the meaning of the word.) I must have been deemed an idle threat. The goldfinches didn’t mind at all that I sat just a few feet away, mesmerized, and with a camera aimed in their direction. It took only a few minutes to catch each step of the harvesting process.
First, hang onto the sunflower head and pull out a full seed.
Then fly the short distance to the top of the head and use it as a table.
With seed in beak, tap it on the top of the sunflower. The light husk will magically break into two halves and fall to the ground. The seed will drop right down the bird’s throat.
Repeat, until satisfied. Manners: Only one feeder may feast at the head at any one time. Then it’s time for the next harvester to fly in. A few quick chirps confirm the switch.
And so the afternoon passed. One by one, seed by seed, bird by bird. Again and again.
I watched in amazement as they took turns, over and over. Eventually I could tell some individuals by their unique markings. The male had a black cap; the female had a greenish cast to her body color. There may have been just two, or there may have been four birds in all. Sometimes the outlines of the black caps looked a bit different, so there may have been at least two males involved. The goldfinches chattered to each other as they took turns. I guess they were figuring out the eating order at this all-you-can-eat birdie buffet.
And yes, perhaps they telegraphed their find amongst their own small group. But unlike the birds that Thoreau wrote about that September day in 1851, they didn’t let the rest of the town in on the location of their treasure. Maybe they employed the finders-keepers rule.
Thoreau’s analogy for the sunflower-goldfinch interaction was a “bounteously filled platter of food” to a “bon-vivant.” My dictionary defines the French term as meaning: “A person who enjoys good food and drink and other luxuries.” To a group of goldfinches on one end-of-summer afternoon, a garden full of sunflowers proved to be one of life’s little luxuries.
One Mind Two Answers
School has begun, and we (my 31 students and I) are making our way into “Walking.” Yesterday, after digesting Thoreau’s criteria for a walk, we set out; we didn’t go far. Confined both by a class period and the Sudbury River, we reached and then lolled some on the grass near its banks. There, we spent ten minutes watching the day’s open sky. Here’s what appeared:
Across the blue slate of this day
nothing is written
until a wisp of white
and then tendrils appear
and the everbusy mind begins
its search for shape, begins
to imagine symbols – it looks
Blue again only blue, which -
give it its due – is
Here we are. I’ve tracked down John Pickle, our school’s meteorologist and weather-savant, and we are in the parking lot where I am describing the cloud phenomenon that four or five of us saw while sky-watching (surely a form of reading) in class. “Clear blue sky,” I say. “Cloudless. And then, as we watched, a wisp cloud, a rumor of cumulus or a scintilla of cirrus, appeared. For 30 seconds or so, it grew. Then, perceptibly, it began to fade, until 30 or so seconds later it was gone, and the sky was pure blue again. This happened three times that I saw.
“John,” I say, “What happened?”
“O,” he says, “here’s what happened. The air you were watching hit a rise; it lifted. And, as it did, it cooled, and the water in the air condensed, and a cloud began to form. But then, that air sank again, and, as it did, it warmed, and the cloud vanished.”
John is as excited by his explanation of the variability of clouds as I am by the way things materialize and then vanish; together, in this parking-lot conversation, we represent aspects of the mind that Henry Thoreau worked to yoke to his purpose to know the world.
Throughout the drought of August, 1854, Thoreau often “improved” his walks by visiting places normally inaccessible on foot. Little land bridges arose everywhere, and he was often at and in the swamps that he saw as some of Concord’s richest troves.
On the 23rd, we find him afoot in Gowing’s Swamp on “a dense bed of quaking sphagnum, in which I sink eighteen inches in water, upheld by its matted roots, where I fear to break through.” There, on this terra-not-so-firma, in this intermediate world that only he would visit, Thoreau finds a “new cranberry on the sphagnum,” and, with typical precision, he records its appearance: “It has small, now purplish-dotted fruit, flat on the sphagnum, some turned scarlet partly, on terminal penduncles, with slender threadlike stems and small leaves strongly revolute on the edges.” It’s classic Thoreau, nosing deeper and deeper into the world.
A few days before his visit to Gowing’s Swamp, Thoreau’s afternoon path crosses that of a turtle, which has taken up residence near one of that season’s few shrinking pools. Thoreau attends closely to the turtle and its movements, of course. But he also takes it up and carries it off with him. A little later we find that he has followed another persistent exploratory urge and killed the turtle to examine it scientifically. The aftermath of this other nosing into life brings the following paragraph:
I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo [Eastern Box turtle] for the sake of science; but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self-respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.
Next, without transition, Thoreau returns to his observer’s world: “The bobolinks alight on the wool grass. Do they eat its seeds?”
I returned to this passage three times, reading it as much for its stark placement as for its stark content. In it Thoreau acknowledges his complexity, the way he is driven to know, even to the point of killing another creature. It is in service of “science,” a system of knowing that demands facts, that goes forward on the wheels of recorded data. But the cost of this knowing is an inconsistency “with the poetic perception” that “will affect the qualities of my observations.” Perhaps Thoreau knew that these slow turtles sometimes live to be 100 years old; perhaps he didn’t know. But he did reckon the cost: a division from nature, even as he had divided the turtle.
Thoreau then turns in language to prayer – not that he may be right with some personified god, but that he may “walk more innocently and serenely through nature.” Killing to know has separated him from nature; next we see it has also separated him from his day and from himself.
Part of why I read and reread Thoreau stems from his bracing honesty with self. We walk in nature to observe, to marvel, to delight in what we meet. And we lay hands on nature, dig into it to know its secrets.
And I think we must ask: when we inquire into it, must we murder mystery too?
By Corinne H. Smith
“There’s a ripple effect in all we do –
What you do, touches me;
What I do, touches you.” (author unknown)
No, this isn’t a quote from Henry David Thoreau. This anonymous poem is printed on a 25-year-old poster that’s tacked up on a wall in my office. In the background, an ocean sparkles in moonlight, and small waves tumble toward the viewer. The words still ring true for me, perhaps now more than ever.
Recently, I spent a few minutes standing in one of my favorite places: on the slight crest of the North Bridge in Concord. To me, the fact that the American Revolutionary War began with shots fired here is ironic to the point of being ridiculous. That one of the most serene spots on the planet could have had such a violent intrusion thrust upon it, and that the event is still memorable enough to be re-enacted at regular intervals today – well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The Concord River passes oh so slowly under the bridge at this time of year. Random bits of floating leaves and twigs are the only clues that point to its sluggish pace. If no noisy visitors are walking around, chatting, or clicking their cameras, the solemn river itself sets the rhythm and the volume of the day. Left alone, it languishes in near-silence.
I was basking in this peacefulness when PLOP! A fish broke the surface and then just as quickly, dove out of sight. I watched as the ripples rolled out from the site of its outburst. Rims of perfect circles reached upstream and downstream and toward both riverbanks — without fanfare, without hullabaloo, without making any sound at all. The swaying water displaced a leaf or two, and perhaps carried swimming insects and small water creatures an inch in another direction. From where I stood, it didn’t look as if the fish had affected anything. But how could I know, being a mere human, standing on a tall wooden bridge, and not being a resident of the complex water world flowing beneath me?
As I was lost in such contemplation and was reminded of the poster back in my office, PLOP! The same fish – or another one – popped up near the first spot and disappeared. And a fresh set of mini-waves spread across the surface of the river – a visualization of 360 degrees expanding exponentially, stretching away from the source, until the wider rings were finally stopped by the solid earthen shore. It was magic to watch.
We never know what actions or words of ours may influence or inspire others.
I wasn’t physically touched by the leaps of the fish. But I was impressed enough to want to write about what I had witnessed. And now that I have written this piece, I will PLOP! it into the online universe, where its ripples will emanate electronically. If the past predicts, a few hundred folks will see the link. A few dozen may actually click on it. Some will read it. One or two readers may add comments in return. My words may always exist in the realm of the Ethernet, but they will quickly fade from the surface, from immediate view. They may re-emerge only when someone has fished deliberately for them. They probably will not create radical change.
But let’s think of Henry! Consider how many individuals have been inspired by reading Henry Thoreau’s words. Someone who did not gain fame in his lifetime has earned a great deal of it in the century and a half since he walked through this very town. How many millions have read his philosophies, across the decades and around the globe? How many of them have chosen to live deliberately because they believed that Henry challenged them to do so?
We think of the more famous folks first: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Emma Goldman, John Muir, N.C. Wyeth, Charles Ives, Jack Kerouac, Michael Pollan. The lives of these individuals are celebrated on a wall of tribute in the house where Thoreau was born. But they represent just a small sample of the people who read Walden or “Civil Disobedience” or even a special saying on a poster or greeting card. For these readers and for many more, the splash of Henry’s words has been enough to jostle them into thought and introspection. And afterward, into action.
The writings of Henry David Thoreau first fell quietly into our literary stream. But ever since, they have sent out ripples – ones that continue to reach new readers today, on every part of the planet. And many folks in turn will somehow react and respond. And their activities will help to keep the waves moving, ever outward, in all directions.
It’s best to pick a clear day when you visit the past. Already the ropes tossed from your imagination to another era will pull you tight to odd moments, so there’s no need for added cloak of a fogbank or rain. And today is just that sort of day – mild, with a lightly-rippled late summer sea – and the forecast says only that the wind will “freshen” in the afternoon. You hope you will too.
So, after a short drive, I settle into my narrow boat, doublecheck that I am fully geared for this solo trip, and then press my paddle forward through the green-amber water. My first passage is under the world’s only cribstone bridge, a construction of balanced granite columns laid sideways to a height of 20 feet. Above the waterline, bright windows form in rectangles amid the stones; below that line the water flows through the stones as the tide dictates. Sliding beneath this bridge and then aiming out to sea is a perfect approach to the past.
My aimpoint, across 3 miles of ocean, is Ragged Island, a lone stone outpost that, from the north, looks like a giant raised eyebrow, with it arch of 50-foot cliffs and fringe of wild, wind-torn trees. From the south, the seaside, Ragged slopes up from its open shingle of rocks to its final fringe on the north; the south side is wild, with unimpeded ocean swells rolling in, rebounding waves surging back and tidal currents swirling – the southeast side of Ragged is always the roughest water to be found on any day.
This splendid, isolate isle was, for a while, “settled” in that long ago it had a year-round farming and fishing family on it. And it has always drawn visitors, though landing on it is dicey even on a good day. In 1933, after seeing Ragged Island during a visit to a friend on Bailey Island, Edna St. Vincent Millay, fresh from Paris and already the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, bought the island for a summer home and contemplative retreat – for her writing and from her often tempestuous engagement with the world.
A liberated spirit, Millay was said to swim nude as part of her immersion in her island life, and this practice led also to a mild swirl of stories about lobstermen checking their traps around Ragged Island more than once in a day.
I have all of this in mind as I paddle into the day’s two-foot swell and feel the ocean lift and lower me in its rhythm. We – the ocean and I – fall into sync, and when I look out to Ragged every so often, it has shifted a bit closer, like a scene as shown by flipcards. I am paddling; someone else is flipping the cards slowly. Still, the island seems always distant, and the sea around and beyond it stretches to the horizon.
During this slow passage, I carry with me too the remembered photographs of the man who joins Edna St, Vincent Millay to Henry Thoreau. Ivan Massar, noted photojournalist and composer of a most interesting life (and Concord, MA resident), wrote and photographed two fine books that I return to often – one about Millay, the other about Thoreau. Their images often take me out into soft light and close contact with a redemptive natural world.
I’ve not even reached the island, and already I’ve freighted this piece (and you, dear reader) with three figures about whom books have and can be written. But often it is the Millays, the Thoreaus and the Massars of this world who help us get out there. Massar, as single example, credits reading Thoreau with his decision as a decorated Navy man in World War II for his conversion to a pacificism that took him out of the service as principled stand.
I think, as I become smaller and smaller on the skin of this large sea, that it is wilder and fuller still for the words and images of these three people. I am lifted by swells and their work. Ragged Island draws closer; I am getting there.
Here is Millay’s poem of tribute to this island:
-Edna St. Vincent Millay
There, there where those black spruces crowd
To the edge of the precipitous cliff,
Above your boat, under the eastern wall of the island;
And no wave breaks; as if
All had been done, and long ago, that needed
Doing; and the cold tide, unimpeded
By shoal or shelving ledge, moves up and down,
Instead of in and out;
And there is no driftwood there, because there is no beach;
Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach;
No driftwood, such as abounds on the roaring shingle,
To be hefted home, for fires in the kitchen stove;
Barrels, banged ashore about the boiling outer harbour;
Lobster-buoys, on the eel-grass of the sheltered cove:
There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.
There you row with tranquil oars, and the ocean
Shows no scar from the cutting of your placid keel;
Care becomes senseless there; pride and promotion
Remote; you only look; you scarcely feel.
Even adventure, with its vital uses,
Is aimless ardour now; and thrift is waste.
Oh, to be there, under the silent spruces,
Where the wide, quiet evening darkens without haste
Over a sea with death acquainted, yet forever chaste.
Here is a link to good summary of the life of St. Vincent Millay: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/millay/millay_life.htm
Here is a link to Ivan Massar’s website: http://www.ivanmassar.com/Biography.html
When we intuited that, at some point, Maine might become home, we planted two high-bush blueberries in our backyard, and, from the front, where it was shaded by white pines, we transplanted another. This triptych of bushes has thrived in their sun-spot, and they have begun to grow together into a backyard thicket. Early this summer, a catbird claimed that thicket (and the whole yard, it seemed); whenever I sensed a flicker of motion as I sat at the breakfast table, it was two-toned, gray and charcoal.
And just as I hovered around these bushes, flicking Japanese beetles from their leaves, so too, as the berries fattened, did the birds. The catbird maintained her seat; she was still bird-of-the-yard. But the timid doves also arrived, and the sparrows and finches, and the titmice, robins and our paired cardinals. Most insisted on fresh too, passing over the already pecked or beetle-gnawed berries that littered the ground for the green and half-green ones on the bush.
Recently, the berries have ripened in a rush, and in the morning the patch has been an aviary; it seems that the catbirds have lost control and every robin and his cousin are here; so too the jays. And, from the woods out back, a wood thrush now flies in, unusual sighting in this edgeland. And – flash of color – a goldfinch? The berries are bigger than his stomach; no way he can lug one off and swallow it. But there in a burst of yellow he goes, the half-ripe berry like a bulbous nose on his beak.
Years ago I asked at the hardware store about this “sharing” with birds and was advised to get netting to drape over the bushes. Dutifully, I bought some and set up protection for “my” berries. An hour later I happened to look out and see movement behind the bushes; when I checked I found a robin partially wrapped and flightless in the netting. “O, no,” I said aloud; the robin was panicked and immobile. I went to find my wife and some scissors. Gently, she cupped and held the robin, who struggled and then went quiet, and gently I began to snip the strands of netting. It took 5 minutes to undo the misappropriation and confusion. But when my wife opened her hands, the robin flew to a nearby tree where he paused and looked back as us. Then, he was gone. We took off the remaining netting and tossed it. And so it was set: each August morning I was to watch this show in the bushes.
Over the past week, the redbird has become ascendant. Not that our resident cardinals have chased away the robins and sparrows and jays that come to dine a la bleu, but they are always within eyeshot. Today, the red streak arrowed across the yard, put on his airbrakes and settled in on a branch as I sipped coffee. Why, I wondered, does he want that green berry, which, given a still-tight bond with its branch, keeps resisting? The blue ones – and they are many – are ripe and pliant, ready to drop; they are also sweet. But it had to be the green, and, after some flurried hovering and tugging, it was. Off he flew to the bank of rhododendrons with his green prize.
All these bird aeronautics have attuned my eye to movement, and tapped into my fondness for the peripheral. Later in the morning, while I was supposedly focused on some dense reading about Romanticism, red wings drew my eye again. But what I was saw wasn’t usual: the redbird, for a change, wasn’t in the berry bushes. Instead he was on the ground beneath the bedroom window; as I watched he flew straight up and hovered, appearing to peer into the room. Then he settled back to the ground. New genus, peeping redbird? I wondered. He did it again, and then again. Now I was watching closely, and I realized that he was plucking spiders’ egg-cases from just under the sill of the window, and those cases were the size of berries. Perhaps he only practices with the green berries.
Minutes later, however, he was back at the bushes. And always, on the periphery of vision drawn to his flashy red is his mate, her dun coloring tinged with a yellowy orange; she brings her romance and gets her berries too.
And each afternoon, after all the avian feeding, I go out and get ours.