A blog at Thoreau Farm
editor, Margaret Carroll-Bergman
founding editor, 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”
In this season of disturbed day and night, I’ve found necessary reading, stories whose thin lines keep reaching toward the world I want to live in, the one I do, even as the news and those who make it try to wipe that world away. The stories are the poems of Kate Barnes, and I have come to them through recommendation from the Gulf of Maine, our local bookstore, itself a kind of kin to the fish that keep swimming upstream to spawn. “Try this,” the owner, a poet himself, said one day, and handed over Crossing the Field. I looked at its handsome woodcut cover, weighed its thinness, and thought, I might even finish this.
For some weeks it sat where most new books do – on my desk in a stratigraphy of enthusiasms. One recent morning, as I sought my coffee-reading to prepare my mind for the day’s words, I saw its blue cover peeking out of the pile, and I unearthed it, carried it to table. I noted, as I always do, its birthdate – 1992 – and turned to page one:
Coming back to my own countryside, I find
the farm again. It is night. Under this wallpaper
of willow leaves and birds, I know there is
an old one with loops of small roses…
No pyrotechnics; rather, a quiet insistence on what return allows, how knowing is layered, and that we live there too, below its surface. Barnes, the daughter of poet Elizabeth Coatsworth and writer Henry Beston, isn’t after easy narratives in her poems; she is 60 when they are published and worn by life’s abrasions, not the least of which is her father, who, fittingly, it seems, renamed himself Beston, by the stone, when made fun of for being “a mick.” But reading her poems is akin to coming on a clearest stream in woods you thought you knew, and then, looking up and seeing with washed vision.
All of this is prelude to a proposal: recent poems I’ve read have been lit – in this corner or that – by fireflies. Yes, they are out of season, but winking light, easily construed as hope, is not. So here, in a spirit of rising light that Kate Barnes and Henry Thoreau might approve, is my proposal:
On January 20th, 2017, when we pass into a new government that I see aligned with darkness, let’s turn off all the lights but one in all of our houses and workspaces. A Day without Light (but one) would recognize and protest a president who seems without spirit and compassion, and it would leave burning resolve and hope to see and then work through this period to a different day. It would be quiet, real, and yes, if enough of us did it, effective.
I don’t know Barnes as well as I know Thoreau, but I think each, both, would nod, yes, and go about that day as a single light.
Added note: I don’t do this, but I’d like to see if this seed-idea can grow, so please share widely if you too would like to see that. Each one of us can be that single light too.
“There is more day to dawn.” Thoreau, Walden
All summer and far into the fall I unconsciously went by the newspapers and the news, and now I find it was because the morning and the evening were full of news to me. My walks were full on incidents. I attended not to the affairs of Europe, but to my own affairs in Concord fields. Thoreau, Journal
It took more than the Concord fields to lever me away from the news, but recent national “incidents” were enough.
After the election, we went away to the mountains. The old, blue route there was still lined, in places, by signs, mostly the victors’, but even they were bent and wind-battered. As we drove, a cold front blew in, tearing even the resistant oak leaves from their branches, and it caught drifts of brown leaves, chasing them in waves over the tar; at times it looked as if we were crossing a river.
We bought days of food and drove up the right wing of the valley, crossing finally on to the last mile of dirt road, and, once we’d unloaded and set the heat to warm, we put on orange hats to distinguish us from deer and walked farther up valley. The wind racketed in the bare trees; a few small-grained snow flurries coursed through, speckling our dark coats, melting like little points of winter on our hands. We wouldn’t climb the mountain, but our walk brought us closer to it.
That night November dark shut down quickly, the sun gone behind the ridge just after 3:00, some remnant clouds blotting up its after-light. Before the moon – nearly full – rose later, the dark was absolute, the only news was the cold front’s still-rising winds. Part of this mountain valley’s appeal lies in its modern remoteness. Yes, a road winds to it, but no signal follows – phones don’t work, e-mail can’t chirp and all the instas go mute. Perhaps because there are more cellar holes than cellars on this road-going-to-trail-going-nowhere, forcing coverage in here is low priority. It felt good to out-distance connection and comment.
Late that night, the moon rose, arcing up over the mountain, bright enough to paint shadows across the open ground; you could see the dark, flying leaves lifted by the wind. Not remembering its proper seasonal name – surely it is beyond harvest – we called it the Selection Moon and watched its light and dark fingers point and wave, picking out possibility, suggesting the way the fronts keep coming over the ridge, scooping up what’s left, sorting it briefly and laying it down again.
Still, even under the racketing wind and the juddering moon, a little peace took hold. This valley is a sort of Walden.
We have, of course, returned – we have work; we have a place too in the current turmoil. That’s as it should and must be. But the mountains are and have a place too, a place where the shapes of ridges admit only the oldest news.
I am thinking today of people who live in terrible times, when whatever good we summon or create in our daily lives gets threatened by the bile we and others also harbor. And so it’s no stretch to think of Henry Thoreau living in the 1850s a decade crawling with evil and aimed surely at civil war. And I think of his huge, complex mind and attendant spirit and wonder how he rose each day to work to write to walk without being washed away by sadness. He could see so much. What sustained him?
I ask myself this question on a day similarly riven, when I feel split from country and future, when my imagination’s gone quiet before despair, when my quiet belief in innate decency fails. I didn’t go to work today; it seemed so beside the point. But after a day of sitting here, I’ll have to get up and go…where?
Well, yes, there to the work I’ve committed to and I’ll keep at it as compact with self and known others. Its daily motion will be salve of a sort.
These few days in and on, I know I will also return to personal struggle with despair. How to go at it? Thoreau sought both to address his time’s evils and live a life with joy at its center. He did not turn or hide away – he looked directly at slavery in its many forms, from primary evil to enslavement of self. In many ways, he even tugged apart some of the nature he revered – to know it, understand it, perhaps, sometimes, to change it (at least the human part). And still, as he walked out into the world each day, he brought and found reverence.
Early in his writing, in the essay, The Natural History of Massachusetts, Thoreau set down what sustained him throughout:
Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.
It is no small feat to be a keen analytic intelligence, stern moralist and giddy walker. So much encompassed in one being.
I am no Thoreau. But I must try to walk like him.
In Concord for a short visit, I find myself with a single free hour, and, as ever, my feet answer the always-question: what should I do? “Walk, of course,” they say. “You are, of course, home in Henry-land.”
And so I set out for one of Henry Thoreau’s rivers, two in fact, which really makes it three – I’ll trace the Assabet for a bit from the hemlock bend upstream, turn back then and edge over for a look at the Sudbury, where the railroad used to cross, and then, I’ll join these two where they conflow and become the Concord. And this walk itself will be confluence, a flowing together of so many past walks and runs with this present.
I’ve no revelation as I walk, kicking the leaves that lie thick on the old railroad grade, watching the light shift under the passing clouds. Instead my mind seems to quiet, seems to slide along, for a change, at the pace of these rivers, whose most hurried expression is a small swirl or three where the Assabet leaves the hemlock bend. Each thought arrives and passes like the rafts of oak leaves heading for the Concord.
The Concord gathers itself of the Sudbury and Assabet at “Egg Rock”; there, the water must bring news, or at least leaves, of the mild uplands behind. The broad Sudbury is actually the lesser to the two, its water as slow as a nap. And after a dry summer with its open banks, the two rivers make one that sticks to its channel, that is so slow here that the sea is only far rumor.
The trails are a river of downed leaves, and I leave my feet low to the ground to kick through them, listening to the rustle that takes me back to childhood and walking through rather than around the pillowed leaves along the street. Up in the under- and mid-stories of the trees, the light ricochets from the still-yellow and russet fire of the leaves – it is November’s show of slanted light. Short days; purest light. Finest hour.
Forethought: Perhaps you have had the good fortune to be part of a workshop that morphs from being a meeting of strangers to a gathering of kindreds in short order. I’m not, as is probably true for many who meander along Thoreau-like trails, much of a joiner. The singular is simple and simple is often single; in Walden the “I” is prized. But there are times…when gathering feels and looks like striking flints together near tinder; sometimes the room lights up. These thoughts then for the group of 15 writers who took up residence at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge for the weekend past (and even, fleetingly, for the 30+ middle schoolers who ricocheted around the place as their elders weighed words).
On Monday, after our writers’ workshop weekend, I returned to the Cardigan region, in part so I could meet a morning appointment the next day in nearby Concord, NH. But I also felt drawn by the pleasure of the receding weekend, in the way that you may hope to revisit a place where good things happened for you. In early afternoon, I arrived in the little valley that’s one ridge over from the lodge where we met, and the morning’s clouds were thinning, winging off before a fresh northwest wind.
Even during my approach to the valley, it was clear that the weekend’s early snows had melted; only an unbalanced eyebrow of white bristled here and there in the light on Cardigan’s dome. Unpacking took two minutes, and then one of the weekend’s centerpoints reappeared: “Time for a walk,” a composite voice said. “Yes, a walk,” I answered. “Yes.”
In the short interim, hunting season’s begun, and so, after dressing in loud, or as it’s advertised, “blaze” orange vest and thickspun hat, I set out on a 5-mile loop that high water had made unavailable to us just two days ago. The loop ambles up our little valley until it bumps up against a trail called the Back 80 Loop; from there it’s just under a mile to the cellar hole at 1642 feet. That’s the same cellar hole that Allen, one of the weekend’s crew, visited during Saturday’s walk, and it’s also the highpoint of a walk my wife and I have taken for decades.
I wonder, as I walk, if Thoreau and his Concord friends ever gathered to read from unfinished work to each other? Not as in at the lyceum, or in other lecture formats, but from, let’s say, the 3rd draft of Walden, or, after walking, a round of hastily-scribed impressions. I scan my past readings and memory and find that I don’t know. Perhaps you do, and will send on answer.
Reaching that cellar hole returned me to the past – not the deep one, but the recent one: I was now walking in one of our writer’s footsteps. I turned downhill, and, a mile later, I arrived at the lodge. The afternoon light was such that the windows were opaque – who knew what or who was inside; maybe some of our writers – but the parking lot was empty. Just so, when you walk into the past: there’s possible return hidden behind the windows, but the parking lot says that time – and everyone who lives in it – have moved on.
Still, as I stood looking back up at the mountain – clear on this day – I was happy to return to place and memory at the same time. It was, I decided, a rare gathering of people who like (and are often loopy about) mountains approached one step at a time, a line of walking that’s kin to a line of words. Follow each, and at some point you look up and say, “O, look a that. Look where I am!”
By Corinne H. Smith
At Thoreau Farm on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, Dr. Lawrence Buell will speak on the topic of his latest book, The Dream of the Great American Novel, and Why It Continues to Thrive. He appears as part of the annual Concord Festival of Authors. The talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend.
Dr. Buell is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard from 1990-2011, and has earned many awards and honors along the way. He has also written and edited a number of books, including New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance; The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture; and a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The Dream of the Great American Novel, Buell identifies four templates or scripts by which the literary genre can be considered. Such key books as The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Moby Dick turn out to be touchstone and model writings that have inspired others to follow. Buell’s presentation will no doubt be of interest to those of us who are avid readers or writers, or both.
We know Professor Buell as Larry. He has long been a Thoreau Farm supporter, and he serves on our Board of Trustees. His admiration of Henry David Thoreau dates back to his days of growing up in the area just west of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Larry first came to Thoreau’s writings in his senior year of high school. He could relate to the Transcendentalist immediately. “He appealed to me with his cantankerousness and rustic tastes,” Larry says. “I grew up in a then-country locale that, like Thoreau’s Concord, underwent suburbanization.” He has carried a fondness for Thoreau ever since. And he has both taught and written about the man for decades.
While Larry has many favorite Thoreau quotes, he fires off two of them quickly: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” from Walden; and “It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember,” from “Life without Principle.”
Like us, Larry believes that Thoreau’s life and work are relevant to our own lives today. He says, “In our increasingly urbanizing, regimented, crowded, and commodity-saturated world, Thoreau’s pastoral pushback, critique of business-as-usual work ethic, insistence on breathing space, and think-small voluntary simplicity will never go out of fashion. These ideas also allowed Thoreau to be a political conscience without the fear of reprisal that might inhibit those of us with more complicated entanglements.”
Please join us as we host Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Buell at Thoreau Farm this Wednesday evening, November 2, 2016.
Out out…even as most are turning in. Down to the sea, flat, windless, blue, with only a jiggle of waves’ reminder, and its seems a day to aim for little islands, to press against the incoming tide for a while, before riding its last push in.
By Black Rock, along the east shore of Shelter, then aim for the humped back of the next little island; its firs look like raised fur on an archback cat. And as high tide nears, it offers a little white sand beach for landing. Thank you, I think I will.
I go ashore on Irony Island, its half-acre fine home for a former English teacher, even as he suspects that this isle is straightforward, simplicity itself, its name derived from the orange-streaked iron of its stone, and not from any duplicity, or turning upside down of words.
If there is any irony here, it lies in the white-splashed rocks at its top. There the orange stone gives way to small drifts of broken shells and white abstracts of guano. The gulls use Irony as anvil for clams they can’t open. And, once they’ve swooped down on their fill of the exposed, soft bodies, the gulls splash the remainders of their satisfaction and pleasure all over the rocks. A whitewash of Irony.
I’ve more islands to visit before turning with the tide, but for now, I’ll be here, on Irony; the gulls will be back when the tide drops and the clam flats open.
It is, when you’re there, a singular place.
By fall I mean literally the falling of the leaves, though some mean by it the changing or the acquisition of a brighter color. This I call the autumnal tint, the ripening to the fall. Thoreau, Journal, 11/3/58
Even as fall’s intense colors soar against the bluest of skies – the other day the maples were so vivid they made me squint – another story calls the eye: on many woods-walks, October’s afternoon sun slants under the still-ascendant oak canopy and makes light of all these little lives, mine included. It is, even as cold bears down, the season of the fern, when they range from dark green to pure gold to curled brown, their various seasons all arrayed simultaneously.
And it is also the season where light divorces heat. In summer, I come often to these woods for respite; in their shades of varying depth, it is cooler, even as the high sun presses heavily on the treetops. High summer always contains a little craving for darkness, for relief from all that light and heat, (which, of course, we crave equally in thin-lit January). But now the woods are like a temperate room where the curtains have been pulled back and light announces life.
A 24-hour leaf-drop: windless through the night, and when I walk down into the woods, the leaves are still falling, each detaching soundlessly and then riding its own shape down – spirals, back-and-forths, oblique meanderings left and right. And on the small evergreens, they accumulate, on some to the point where the tree is garbed in a new sweater, or daubed with decoration. The wind will come to comb them, but for now, the firs are decked out; they look ready to party.
And then, a drought-breaking, 24-hour rain, with northwest wind to follow; much is beaten to the ground, and the sight- and light-lines have opened. It is deep fall.
And in this season, the understory is the story.
Perhaps you too wait for a day or three before taking up an anticipated book. Just so for me with Upstream, Mary Oliver’s recently released volume of selected essays. I didn’t hurry for two reasons: first, I’d read a number, most, of the essays before when they appeared in earlier volumes; I’d even read one in first light before it appeared in the journal I edited then. Second, and more pertinently, I wanted those few days before opening the door of the book’s cover and stepping first into one, then another, of its rooms. I knew that, even as many would not be wholly new, taking up residence would feel new – we, the essays and I, would differ, sometimes greatly, from what we were at our last meetings.
Morning coffee’s the time for my day’s first reading before turning to work, and so, facing east, I began Upstream, and soon, I heard familiar resonance – here, even as Emerson is Oliver’s favorite Concordian, was the not-so-distant presence of Henry Thoreau, cloaked in his famous coat metaphor. Walden readers are likely to recall its appearance at the end of the book’s second paragraph, where Thoreau has been speculating about his potential readership:
Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
And here is Oliver in a paragraph late in the clear waters of her book’s title essay, which is, among other things, about becoming, or, to use one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, “realizing” oneself:
Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.
Both writers would have us try on lives, but wear, finally, only the one that doesn’t “stretch the seams” or burden us with heavy responsibilities chosen by others. It takes “time to reject them,” for Henry Thoreau the two-plus years at Walden Pond, where, even as he cast off other coats, he was busy already with the one that he would offer in 1854.
As I read this paragraph, associations burst like popcorn in a popper, when suddenly the oil reaches temperature, and where there were only little seeds there are now white flowers of corn spilling up and out, so many, an overflow – the kneeling to earth, the attention on eternity, the nail, the house, the water, the flowers…
Oliver’s essay ends soon after with a single sentence paragraph: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Simone Weil wrote, “absolute attention is prayer.”
And Thoreau, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Perhaps you too love it when a story ripples on, when the splash of its initial landing brings on a little backwash from or crossings with other stories and their wavelets. Just so with our recently posted piece from Richard Higgins about NYC’s attempted heist of Concord’s and the Thoreau family’s pencil past. Here, in short, is a photo Higgins discovered and its caption, which offers ID. At the end we have a tag-verse. Perhaps there are still more pencil-places to be heard from.
“Playing footsie with pencil
history is something with which
the people of Concord will not
Richard Higgins – after Winston Churchill
by Richard Higgins
Few will forget that last year at this time New York told us that Henry Thoreau was really a cheerless curmudgeon and hypocritical scold with the heart of Ted Kaczynski and the writing ability of Bronson Alcott. Many were astonished that the Thoreau Society had somehow missed this for this 75 years.
Now from New York comes another October surprise, this one from the Times, not the New Yorker. Also overlooked by Thoreau and Concord partisans, it recently announced, is the fact that the pencil capital of 19th- century America was–drum roll, please –New York City! Who (beside Kathryn Schulz) woulda thunk it?
I will not play fast and loose with the facts (unlike some writers), so I will corroborate. On Tuesday, October 11, 2016, a metro column in The New York Times began:
New York Today: Our Past in Pencils
BY ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE
“With school back in full swing (except for all the days off recently), let’s sharpen our knowledge of New York history.
Today’s lesson: How our city was once the capital of pencil manufacturing in the United States.
It further stated that New York in 1861 had, and I quote, “one of the country’s first lead-pencil factories.”
Now, are we who are in the know going to savage the author of this ridiculous claim with vicious personal attacks? Of course not. Concord people are decent and forgiving. Ms. Levine is probably a sincere and lovely person in addition to being a criminally inept reporter.
As everyone else knows, Concord had sophisticated and productive pencil factories while raw sewage still flowed on New York streets and no one dared venture into the raving wilderness above Wall Street.
Here, Ms. Levine, not to put too fine a point on it, are the facts:
The first wood pencils in the New World were made in Concord in 1812 when William Munroe invented a machine to cut and groove wood slats and filled them with a graphite paste. Fifty-nine (59) years later, in 1861, Eberhard Faber built what the Times calls the first “large-scale” pencil-making factory, in New York. Munroe’s shop was primitive by comparison. However he produced 175,000 pencils in 1814, only two years after starting, and five million pencils in 1835 alone. Sounds large-scale to me.
Munroe was soon joined by a cluster of prominent pencil makers in Concord and surrounding towns, including Ebenezer Wood (Acton), Joseph Dixon (Salem), Benjamin Ball (Harvard) and, most famously, in 1821, the father of the humorless misanthrope, and then the insufferable sourpuss himself. It was partly because of Henry Thoreau’s involvement that Concord led the pencil industry in the United States into the 1840s. At that time, Thoreau pencils were among the most sought after in the country.
Concord pencils apparently were even admired in New York. In a family history, Munroe’s son wrote that some of his father’s less principled competitors illegally slapped Munroe labels on their stock. “One merchant in New York”—that putative pinnacle of all things pencil—“sold German-made pencils with ‘W. Munroe’ on them as illegal knock-offs.” No names mentioned, but just noting that Eberhard was from Bavaria.
The question then is: What makes one pencil-producing city the pencil capital of a nation? The quantity of cheap pencils turned out? Probably not. Would not innovation and quality be better criteria?
If so, honors must go to 01742. Here’s why:
Concord pencil makers early on mixed graphite with wax, spermaceti and other substances. All worked but had drawbacks. The French were the only ones who knew the right recipe. Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented the modern pencil lead in 1795 by mixing graphite with clay—but he kept the formula a strict secret. Henry Thoreau decided to find the perfect graphite mix on his own. After researching it at the Harvard Library in 1840, he hit upon the idea of using clay—rediscovering what the Frenchman had figured out 45 years earlier. The result was a pencil lead that was harder and darker than any his family had made.
Thoreau also designed a machine to grind graphite better and another one to drill a hole lengthwise through the wood slats so the lead could be slid inside. The only reason the Thoreau family got out of the business was that the right recipe soon became common knowledge, resulting in stiff competition. The Thoreau’s wisely abandoned the pencil business in 1853 for a more profitable one: selling powdered graphite (“plumbago”) for use in electrotyping.
Having now settled this matter, to be fair I should point out that when I gently informed Ms. Levine by email of her error, she was the soul of grace. She apologized and promised a correction. I thanked her and said having at least one of these October misrepresentations corrected would set many local minds at ease. Her reply was not encouraging. She was off to her next story. New York workers, she said, have found the exact spot where the original Concord grape grew in Central Park.
Writer and editor Richard Higgins lives in Concord. University of California Press will publish his Thoreau and the Language of Trees in March 2017. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Corinne H. Smith
I left Concord, Massachusetts, Wednesday morning, September 25th, 1850, for Quebec. … I wished only to be set down in Canada, and take one honest walk there as I might in Concord woods of an afternoon. ~ Henry Thoreau, in his opening paragraph of A Yankee in Canada.
Henry Thoreau and Ellery Channing made their Quebec trip at first by train and by steamer, and then took to the roads. Early this month, I joined a group of Quebecois and Americans to follow part of their walking path by car and on foot. The two-day outing was organized by Jacques Delorme and Jean Cloutier of Groupe de Simplicite Voluntaire de Quebec. We started in old Quebec city and ventured out into the countryside to the east, just as Thoreau and Channing did back in 1850. Along the way we saw many of the same sights, and we seemed to be truly following in their footsteps. Here is a short report to connect both trips.
As he rattled along the rails heading north, Thoreau “botanized” from the train. He noticed the woodbine, or Virginia creeper, turning its brilliant autumn red. It hung on trees “like a red scarf,” he wrote. “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.” Since this is one of my favorite natural observations from Thoreau, I made a point of searching for Virginia creeper during this visit. I wasn’t disappointed. The vine twirled around trees in the forests of the Adirondacks of New York. It rested on and took over fences in Canada. It hung from maples in Quebec, just as it had in Henry’s day. It is still here, still turning its signature maroon and crimson.
Like Thoreau and Channing, we toured old Quebec city. We saw the 1759 battle site of the Plains of Abraham, the citadel, the old city hall, the Wolfe-Montcalm monument, a few museums, and many other buildings and streets that Thoreau and Channing either saw or walked past. We three Americans kept saying to one another, “You know, we’re not that far from home. And yet it feels as though we’ve been transported to another place and time.” We meant this in a good and interesting way, of course. Thoreau must have had similar feelings. He wrote that after only two days of travel, “We were taking a walk in Canada, in the Seigniory of Beauport, a foreign country, which a few days before had seemed almost as far off as England and France. … Well, I thought to myself, here I am in a foreign country; let me have my eyes about me, and take it all in.” The trouble is that Quebec offers too much to take in. You can’t see everything at once, or even at all.
We left the city and walked east along present-day Avenue Royale, the same road that Thoreau took into the countryside. We passed homes that were built of native stone in the mid- to late 1600s. Most had old family-owned stone root cellars built right into the hillside. We were lucky: we had reservations to stay at local inns for the night. But Thoreau had difficulties finding a place to sleep, since he saw no public houses along the roadway. The language barrier was part of his challenge, too. The home where he and Channing finally ended up belonged to Jean Baptiste Binet and his wife, Genevieve. “We here talked, or murdered French all the evening with the master of the house and his family, and probably had a more amusing time than if we had completely understood one another,” Thoreau wrote. At bedtime, the men had to climb up to a high chamber with a wooden rail around it to reach a bed outfitted with linen sheets. Although Quebecois researchers disagree on the exact Binet house that Thoreau stayed in, they say that one of the prime candidates is a building that operates today as a Mexican restaurant called Senor Sombrero. We stopped here to take a peek and to imagine the past.
As we continued on, we passed pick-your-own orchards with long lines of cars waiting for spaces to open in the parking lots. Random apple trees stood right next to the road, just waiting for passers-by to reach out and to grab a few samples for themselves. Apple-lover that he was, Thoreau took note of the trees here, too. “There were plenty of apples,” he said, “very fair and sound, by the roadside, but they were so small as to suggest the origin of the apple in the crab.” Later, when he and Channing walked on to Sainte Anne, someone brought them more apples. “They were exceedingly fair and glossy, and it was evident that there was no worm in them; but they were as hard almost as a stone, as if the season was too short to mellow them. … I declined eating one, much as I admired it.” And so he turned away from Quebec apples. Our own Henry Thoreau (aka historical interpreter Richard Smith) did not decline the opportunity. He and some others took a few bites of fruit. I did not imbibe. Those who did said they were good but that they leaned toward the tart or sour side.
In crisp autumn sunshine, we walked between the hillside and the St. Lawrence River, where the natural geology makes for stunning waterfalls. The most spectacular ones are Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency) and Canyon Sainte-Anne. Thoreau and Channing scrambled around and admired both of these falls. Of Montmorency, he wrote: “It is a splendid introduction to the scenery of Quebec. Instead of an artificial fountain in the square, Quebec has this magnificent natural waterfall to adorn one side of its harbor.” Today both sites offer somewhat sturdy bridges so that visitors can walk above and over the falls. They can’t help those of us who have issues with heights, though. I wouldn’t have gotten over the Montmorency bridge without the support of several members of our group, for which I was grateful. I tackled the one at the canyon on my own – twice! both over and back! – but I did so on tiptoe, tentatively and gingerly, and without looking down at the water. I had to do it because I knew what lay ahead: the replica of the Walden house that had been built here years ago. Local people knew that Thoreau made his visit in 1850. The spot where you can first view the full length of the falls is now marked with a house built to Thoreau’s specifications. This was our final destination on this trip. Those of us who succeeded in reaching the house got signed certificates to show for our efforts.
“I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” ~ The opening sentence of “A Yankee in Canada”
What we got 166 years later were good photographs, great stories and memories, and a passel of new friends. Oh, and something else, too: an invitation to come back next year and to take this honest walk once again. Well, you don’t have to ask us twice. We’re in! Does anyone else want to come along?
[Photos by Mary Lynn Brannon and Corinne H. Smith]
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. Thoreau, Walden
During one of my middling lives, I edited a semiannual journal, and, in the midst of my ten-year stint with the blue pencil, I received a great gift. It arrived as part of a note in reply to one of mine: “Yes,” the note began, “I would be happy to contribute a poem to your journal.” That poem became the first of many, and later they were joined by some short essays, encounters with weather and light. How often does an editor get to publish his favorite writer?
As celebration of the coming of Upstream, Mary Oliver’s newest book of essays and “other writings,” I have in mind a little story. And so I went looking in the bins of the past, where I keep some notebooks and correspondence. Much of what I remember from those days seems random or episodic, but I do have these few bins, and I recalled their containing both a student journal and, perhaps, a letter. So I went looking.
There, easily found, was the journal, a series of reflections from a Thoreau-anchored course called Reading the Land that I taught one fall during the 90s. SA, a meticulous student, had typed her entries, and I began to scan them for the one I wanted. Late in the semester, we had been reading Oliver’s West Wind, and one of the poems had recalled for SA some family summer time in Wyoming; specifically, she had twinned a climb of a mountain with reading an Oliver poem and called them both “experiences” that had left her awed. I was looking for that entry.
I found all the others, set neatly in order, and I read few, reflecting back on the privilege a teacher has in seeing into the minds of others, learning fresh perspective, experiencing other worlds.
But the entry I’d recalled was missing, and that absence triggered a second memory. Where was it? Ah, yes, now I remembered: I’d sent it on to the poet herself, thinking that she would be pleased to have a reader who found “experience” equally on the mountain and in her poem. Who wouldn’t want such a reader? I’d reasoned, and I’d been right.
A week passed, and then a letter arrived. In the Courier font she favored, Oliver said that SA was the sort of reader she hoped for, a reader who found a poem much more than an intellectual exercise, or a few moments with a grouping of words. SA had entered her reading of the poem as she climbed into and through a landscape.
I was glad I’d sent the original.
In a few days, I’ll go to my local bookstore and get my ordered copy of Upstream. And then I’ll settle in to reading it, and I will go slowly upstream and through landscape. It will be, I know, an experience.
“…The fiery hangbird…” – Thoreau’s description of an oriole in his Journal, 12/29/53
An all-day rain wanes
and the hawk atop the hemlock
fans her feathers to dry
in the wind, and the light
in the party-colored leaves
is just so…no it’s now
the oriole that circles
the hawk his body brighter
than three spread red tails,
the hawk a stubborn thumb
thrust into the sky just…so
what does a hawk do
amid the thick rain? If
I were her I’d find
a thick pine and side-
step in along a branch
mid-tree and listen and
listen to the rain’s
roar…or maybe, perhaps, I’d sit
like a totem-top and wait
for the bright sun of an oriole,
and just be here when
it came and swooped and
swerved its fiery orbits around me.
It is unwise for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. Thoreau, Journal, 7/8/58
Dry summer has stretched into dry fall, and today in the mountains, the much touted leaves show drought’s stress – colors are muted and many leaves are blotched with brown and crisp even before they fall to the ground. So, this morning’s rain carries with it a small sigh of relief; the ground and the woods breathe a little more easily for a while.
And I am on the edge of small absence as the pattering stops and the shallow puddles glisten a bit in the gray morning light; I have a few hours before an appointment, and I scan my map for a trail that fits those few hours. Then, having settled on an out-and-back to Low’s Bald Spot, where, if it clears, I’ll look up into the Great Gulf and at the neat pyramid of Mt. Adams and the shambling mass of its neighbor, Mt. Madison, I fill water bottles, lace up my shoes and set out.
How can the 8 a.m. woods be so dark? I wonder as I quick-step around faintly-shining stones. A slight breeze shakes secondary rain from the leaves; I am wet with leftover drops and, soon, with work. A long corridor of climbing stretches ahead into the gray wherever, and I drop my gaze to the ten-foot puzzle always before me and go up. It happens then: the whole little enterprise of motion and focus that is me meshes; whatever lies behind me or more than 10 feet ahead, stays there. I am perfectly present. It feels like rain after a long dry spell. “Ah,” says self, and I realize that I am smiling.
The Spot, which truly is a low one amid the high peaks, requires a hand-aided scramble up its final rocks, and, in the now-thin woods, day has broken open with light. I am, I realize, about to get more riches of reward. Clouds roll up out of the valley to my north, and then, to my west Adams and Madison ghost through the clouds. They seem impossibly tall and distant, though, if I were to abandon plans, I could be there in a few hours. Then, a giant appears – the ridge that leads up to Nelson Crag is so close it could fall on me, if the earth were to abandon principle and tumble to new arrangement. And the bright white tatters of valley cloud keep rising, keep catching the here-and-gone-and-here sun that has found a slot of blue over the Carters. Not far above the winds of a front are calling all these clouds to change, but here the breeze is faint, and even though I am wet and cooling and it is fall, I can sit back on this fresh-washed rock and watch the whole aerial show – more smiling sans thoughts.
If a day, an enterprise, a quest, is truly blest, the way back will be equal to the way out. Just so on this morning, where somehow the wide and wild visions of cloud and mountains shrink again to the composure of the immediate and its stones and footpath. Rhythm sets up and I match it with chuffs of expressed air – all the way down I sing wordlessly and dance over and on the stones.
It is pleasant to embark on a voyage, if only for a short excursion, the boat to be your home for the day, especially if it is neat and dry. A sort of moving studio it becomes, you can carry so many things with you. It is almost as if you put oars out at your windows and moved your house along. Thoreau, Journal, 8/31/52
Here: sunrise – 6:28 a.m.; sunset – 6:34 p.m. A few days away, light’s six-month reign will give way to night’s rise.
Floatation off the north end of Birch Island – languid, sun-on sentences punctuated by falling acorns, some of which land with a plop in the water, while others rattle the leaves, and a few pinball among the branches, making hollow comment. On the way here, I have seen nuts afloat, colonizers headed for some far shore, whole paragraphs of leaves bundled in little darkness.
A lightest breeze riffles the water, and it pushes my boat into the shore grass, which scrapes and sighs along its sides. We – my boat and I – lodge there, 6 inches above the mud, and the sun catches in the southside folds of my shirt; my northside cools. It is, except for the arrhythmic marimba of the acorns, utterly quiet. Except also, now that I am so still, or still so, for the tiny splashes of two-inch-long fish that hurry and leap around me. It could be celebration of this day, but it is not – a larger splash tells me a larger fish is fishing these shallows. Getting on with it.
Later, halfway up in a pine, I see a single white egret…mid-migration? just setting out? Once, in the same season, we saw 16 egrets in the same white pine; they looked like the flung towels of some giant, maybe summer, who had stalked off after bathing in the bay.
Empty, mostly, these islands…though from White an eagle lumps into the air, pretends to soar, lumps his wings some more, feigns a dive and turns back to his tree. So much, he seems to say, for all this work at motion; I’ll wait for something still to float by. Which I do.
It is that sort of day.
Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Thoreau, “The Ponds,” Walden
A quick trip to Concord on September 17th offered too a free hour and a half, which was enough: drive to the Sudbury Road parking and leave by trail up Bear Garden Hill – this is the long, or crosslots approach to Walden’ s west shore, and, when I have time, it’s my favored way there. Here, then, for those of you who are at distance, are some photos from that walk, which, after reaching the pond, worked its way down to the Sudbury River at Fairhaven Bay, and then looped back along the river.
All that was missing form this walk was immersion, but dripping in my next appointment seemed a dampness too far. Next time.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, October 15, 1859
Earlier this summer, I spent an afternoon at a state park I had never visited before. The place had once been a farming community with a creek running through it. The properties were flooded in the mid-1960s, when the state built a dam and a reservoir to supply water for a nearby town and paper mill. The park and the lake opened for public use in 1970. To give you some perspective, I can tell you that the park itself is ten times bigger than Walden Pond State Reservation. The lake is 20 times bigger than Walden Pond. But this is not a glacial lake, like Walden is. The water has filled in the natural nooks and crannies of an irregular hilly landscape. One of the larger fingers of the lake had a nice trail that followed its curves for a mile and a half. I decided that this was the path I would take. It was a sunny, warm, blue-sky day. My schedule was my own. I could saunter and spend as much time here as I wanted to. Or not.
Because of the location of the parking lot, it made the most sense to take this trail clockwise, with the water always to the right. So off I headed, with the woods and thickets on one side, and the water and wetland vegetation on the other.
I was only starting down the path when I already heard rapid footsteps right behind me. I stepped out of the way just as a small boy dashed past. His father wasn’t too far behind, running with his cell phone held in an outstretched hand. From it, I heard a metallic female voice say, “Follow the trail around the curve.”
“Do you know about this stuff?” he called to me, waving the phone, while he was on the run. “It’s GREAT!” And away he sped.
I shook my head to myself. I stopped and admired the wider view of the sunlight hitting the lake. When I peeked over the cattails, I saw three nice-sized turtles sunning themselves on a log. I quickly turned back to share this news with someone, but the man and his son were well out of sight. They’d zipped right past these guys without even seeing them, without even guessing that they could and would be here. Their app must not have been programmed for possible reptile sightings. How could anyone hope to digitize a dynamic park experience?
The path dipped down to a place that higher water had once covered. Ridges of mud marked with hiker tracks crossed the middle of the walkway. I stepped around the spot — not because I wanted to keep my boots clean, but because I saw four butterflies landing and swirling and twirling just above the mud. Two tiger swallowtails and two black swallowtails were taking turns at … well, SOMETHING. I couldn’t see anything there that would interest either them or me. But then again, I wasn’t a butterfly.
I looked up as two young power walkers, a woman and a man, came striding down toward me. I pointed to the butterflies and said, “Don’t step on them.” Neither body broke the pace, but they duly stepped around the mud, just as I had done.
“What are they doing?” the woman asked, looking down, but not missing her beat.
“I don’t know,” I said. Then I pointed back up the hill. “There are three turtles on a log up there, too.”
“Cool,” she said. But she and her partner kept right on marching, with arms swinging in time. Making a stop for random butterflies or turtles was obviously not part of their fitness regimen. They too were soon out of sight.
Onward I meandered. I came to a paved road, a remnant of the days when this area had been farmed and peopled. The road dead-ended at the water’s edge. It offered a nice view of the lake and the flocks of Canada geese that floated on it. But it wasn’t the trail I was supposed to follow. So I backtracked and found the turn-off that I had missed earlier. I picked up a nice big feather that a goose had left behind, and I tucked it into my notebook. Then a family of four humans walked toward me, led by a panting beagle who was straining forward on his leash. Well, there go the geese, I thought to myself.
We made small talk about which route to follow: the path or the road to the water. They weren’t sure at first if they were even going to continue. The two children were fairly young to be expected to walk the whole length of this trail. “Did you see the turtles at the beginning?” I asked. No, they hadn’t. I didn’t even ask about the butterflies. “Well, if you decide to turn around and go back that way, be sure to look for them.” They said they would. But in the end, they headed up the hill to continue around the lake. I stopped to consider the straight row of young sugar maples that lined the road. Someone or something had planted them, for sure. I tried to imagine how the place had looked when people still lived here.
Two hefty middle-aged men in shorts came toward me. We too had the same discussion about the differences between the road and the trail. They followed the road to the water. I headed up the hill to continue along the dirt path.
At the top of the ridge lay a relocated cemetery. All of the surnames on the stones were of German origin, and the lives they represented dated to the 1800s. They had made good homes here. And now they were resting in a peaceful place, in the midst of a state park. The silence was broken by a wood thrush call from the thicket farther back in the woods. Henry Thoreau’s favorite bird! What a lovely song it had! I stood and listened and smiled. And I hesitated. Should I keep walking? Or should I just stand here and listen to the thrush? I wasn’t following anyone else’s timetable. I didn’t have to be anywhere else. So I stood for at least five minutes, then walked as slowly as I could, gradually away from the thrush’s song. Eventually I couldn’t hear it anymore. I was happy to have heard it at all.
Sudden crashes came from the underbrush between me and the water. I expected to see a deer or a turkey burst through the bushes. Instead, I spied the two men in shorts. They had decided to bushwhack their way from the dead-end road to a place farther along where they could catch the path. They were red-faced and out of breath by the time they reached me. “You took the road less traveled, I see,” I said. “Yup,” said one. Then they turned onto the path in front me and hurried on their way. I wondered if they had noticed the poison ivy growing on the hillside that they just passed through. Ah, well, they were already gone now. They would probably find out later, one way or another.
I found another spot to watch more Canada geese. They floated, occasionally chatted to one another, and then finally paddled on to another cove. I took the feather out of my notebook and laid it in the grass. I didn’t really need it. Maybe another park visitor did.
When I reached the end of the trail, I found three members of the family of four, all in a slight panic. The beagle was flopped out on the grass, panting in exhaustion. No one had thought to bring water along for him. They were giving him the remainders of their own bottles. The father had run off to get more. I didn’t have anything to offer them, unfortunately. I could only hope that their neglect wasn’t life-threatening for the animal. I shook my head to myself as I crossed the bridge to loop back to the parking lot.
A dozen of us had shared the trail for an hour or two that afternoon. We had vastly different experiences. Did everyone get what they expected? Did everyone have “a good time?” The dog definitely did not. And the two guys in shorts may have ended up with a negative delayed reaction because of their trailblazing. They may have had to search their medical cabinets for stray bottles of calamine lotion that night. I can confirm that I had an enjoyable outing. Otherwise, who am I to judge?
“It is a great art to saunter.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 26, 1841
Yes, Henry, it is. And I’m thinking that perhaps we need to give people lessons in this great art, before we turn them loose into public parks.
All sorts of men come to the Cattle-Show. I see one with a blue hat*. Thoreau, Journal, 9/29/57.
There are days…when it pays…to break routine. Yesterday the light came to the window…just so…and I said, “someone has to go.”
The sea is only a few miles away, and yet, when I arrive, I see it is enjoying a very different day. Yes, the air has a familiar translucence – it is so-clear September – but a quick check of the water shows there’s a torrent of air in motion above. White-caps wash the bay, and there’s the always sound of restless water. The wind, still from the summer-south, insists, driving the water up bay; I will go the other way.
And that occasions a moment’s hesitation – do I want that work against this wind? But then I consider also that I can “hide” in the lee of an island chain for part of the way, and I know too that, a few hours from now, when I turn back, I will hitch a ride on the tide and the wind and waves will be at my back. Work to get out; glide home – good division of day. And now the water is simply “live”; I like live water.
Here then, because someone had to go, is a small photo gift from a midpoint of this day away – it is only the view of and from Little French Island and a few late-season beach roses; you will have to imagine the osprey-keenings, the loon-calls and the seals who grumbled their indecision about whether to give up their sun-rocks for the thin yellow boat a hundred yards away (I kept my distance and they stayed put).
May you be the next one to put on your blue hat and go.
* Note from Jeffrey Cramer: “When Thoreau presented his “Succession of Forest Trees” before the Middlesex Agricultural Society at the Middlesex Cattle Show and Ploughing Match on 20 September 1860, he began: ‘Every man is entitled to come to Cattleshow, even a transcendentalist.'”
Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. Thoreau, Walden.
“Are you okay?”
The two ten-year-olds pause, balanced on their bicycles, as I recover my stride and footing.
“Yes, thanks,” I say…”just caught a toe on a root.” And then I keep on down into the woods, and they remount and ride on the other way.
As I run, I wonder about this little moment and its concern.
Here in the woods, away a bit from the everyday setting of streets and homes, have I just met two boys trained in empathy by their parents? Or was that question involuntary, simply automatic concern for a fellow two-legger, who has stumbled, a white-haired two-legger to boot?
All of this has been much in mind as I’ve read through Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, whose subtitle reads, On Homecoming and Belonging. In it, Junger takes as primary subject and example the difficulty modern soldiers experience rejoining our society, and how this experience differs from that of warriors in tribal societies. Those warriors, who bore with them the horror and trauma of combat, returned to groups configured to receive them, to help them readjust, to help them be okay. Junger points out that our soldiers return to a society designed for the individual, one where need of aid is often seen as weakness, one where isolation is rampant. In such a world, healing, which requires social context, gets delayed, or doesn’t happen at all. Disability takes over instead; life dissipates.
Having been trained in individuation and individualism, having learned to think that hope arrives one person at a time, I find myself wary of groups, or tribes, where the expectation is that a person subsume her or himself to the group, for its good. And yet, it feels as if we – country, world – are wheeling out of control, as individuals fly off at all angles in pursuit of self(ies?) So much self regard; so little group regard.
Here, I think also of Henry Thoreau, seer of the singular, urger of self-realization, of making the self real. Thoreau set out for Walden in pursuit of “I.” But, more importantly, I think, once he’d discovered that “I,” he returned to the group – both to town and to the larger world via his writing – to see what effect he might have in advancing that group.
“Are you okay?” he might have asked rhetorically as he watched his town and country stumble, lose stride in a time whose troubles seem resonant with ours. Would it recover balance? Regain stride?
Walden ends famously with the image of the morning star, with “more day to dawn.” Okay, it posits, through experiment, you know something of yourself; that’s a beginning, but only that. Now on to your allotted day/life – what will you make there? with whom?
By now, I am deep in the woods, and, if you have read along to this point, perhaps you are too. But I realize that as I return from this daily foray, I come back to the extended and extensive self of a town that is itself nested in a larger group.
And I need to keep asking of people I meet, whether in stride or knocked from it, are you okay? Are we?
Beyond the small tribe of relations and friends who greet me by name, it can be tough to find the lovable. On my way to work today, a cyclist snarled at me because I rolled up to a stop sign and then, seeing no one, pulled out on to the road; the cyclist, who was riding against traffic, and so, was on the wrong side of the road, took umbrage at having to brake as I turned onto the street. My heart rate shot up, and I was tempted to turn and follow him, give him my 3 cents worth for his 2. A few minutes later, an impatient fellow motorist honked twice when I wouldn’t accelerate through a yellow-light-going red; beside me as I fumed was a truck with a spent muffler and a confederate flag flying behind the cab. I was pretty sure whoever was driving behind the tinted window was chronically angry.
Once in the little room where I write, I thought it wise to avoid reading the news sites I also frequent. Aside from occasional visits to the apparently tiny land of Altruism, most of the copy there features a mix of trouble and small-fisted posturing. Where to turn?
One tough-minded place is a section that many skip over at the end of Walden’s long first chapter, Economy. After laying out his sense of the state of the world and asking his readers to examine how they configure their lives, Thoreau turns to the problem of how to love his neighbors, or how to be among them: what joins the “phil” with “anthropy?” he asks. Is it even possible, you may ask.
Predictably, Thoreau dismisses the most common philanthropy, giving money or others resources to someone in need. He pays particular attention to a system of giving, to ongoing support that one might offer to a poor family, for example; we would call it welfare. What, other than dependency, does this accomplish? he wants to know.
Already, early in my reading, I have left liberal-land, or left the left and its redistributive government.
I am among the free-range libertarians now. Out here in I-land, one form of love is leaving, leaving others alone, letting them “be.” Perhaps then that “being” is the route to “becoming”; perhaps then each can become self according to individual “genius.” Perhaps.
Having passed through and then worked in the liberal academy, I am suspicious; I fear an anarchy of “I,” which means I fear the loosing of our worst tendencies, which I must see as central to who we are. And yet, as is amply clear, the current order has been bent to those tendencies anyway.
“What have you got to lose?” I say to myself, and my flesh crawls at unintentional quotation. Is there really overlap between the life of someone I revere and the most narcissistic candidate I’ve ever seen?
But then, when I consider Philanthropy’s question – how best do I love other people – I find solace: Henry Thoreau saw it as serious question; it informed all his writing, as he sought and succeeded in bringing us news of the universe. In the narrow mind of the candidate whose name I will not mention, the question seems subverted into this one: How best to love myself and have others do so too? I’ll leave that question in little hands.
I return then to Thoreau’s final pages of “Economy.” There, he writes,
If, then, we would restore mankind by truly Indian, botanic, magnetic or natural means, let us first be as simple as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.
If I should reverse the usual, — go forth and saunter in the fields all the forenoon, then sit down in my chamber in the afternoon, which it is so unusual for me to do, — it would be like a new season to me, and the novelty of it would inspire me. Thoreau, Journal, 7/23/51, 8 A.M.
I try to work out how the porcupine perched to gnaw the upper left corner of this trail-sign. It seems likely, s/he was upside down, as the tooth-grooves trend up slightly to the left. And I wonder at the wood’s appeal – did it have still a trace of salt-sweat from the trail-worker who picked the 2” X 6” slat from a pack, picked too a nail, and, with 4 practiced strokes, hammered home the marker?
“TRAIL,” is says, simply. This way on. And even now, early in this little tale, you are seeing me as scofflaw: “What’s he doing with that sign?” forms in your mind, followed by images of walkers straying from the point where the sign once was. “Only a real J would take a sign meant to show others the way.”
Here’s quick defense: I took this sign from a woodland no one could wander any more. Mechanized loggers with their huge capture-claws had been there recently, and, what was once a trail, or TRAIL, simply wasn’t. There was the familiar sign tacked to a thin, remaining tree amid piles of slash washed by unfamiliar sunlight. The relocated trail was higher on the ridge, ambling along its crest, and its signage, while similar, was newly stenciled and tacked to trees also. I was conducting a post-mortem on a trail I knew better than most, one I’d walked for 30 years, until the land had changed hands invisibly, and the machines had showed up…most visibly.
So, my sign’s a symbol…of what was…and, in its new place, a reminder that I’d best remember the best way into the world is a foot path that unfolds at a few miles per hour, the speed of perception.
Yesterday, on the amply-trod Commons trails near home, I was slow-footing along when I heard a chewing sound. I looked right, and, as I did, two heads rose from a berry bush ten feet away. The two fawns puzzled over the two-legger before them; I made eye contact and stayed still. We took each other in over a minute. Finally, one snorted and, turning easily in air, bounded off, white flag of tail raised; the other followed, exactly, down to the snort. Gradually, the space where they had been filled with air.
Just so on a morning trail.
My sign, I think, is really a reminder, a command – TRAIL! Here’s to yours.
Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation…If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already. Thoreau, Journal 10/15/59
I picked yesterday to be away. I packed enough into the thin needle of my boat and pointed out, at least at first, at the horizon and the uncertain island that appears to slump in that direction. Stroke by stroke , I drew nearer; gradually the island grew. Its tall pines distinguished themselves, its wind-shorn seaside cliff became wrinkled with nearness. I was, I reflected, getting there, even as “there” kept receding toward the horizon.
Once at Ragged Island, I made my way to Mark, which marked also the turn to the north and away from the edge, and on toward Flag (another sort of marker), where I pointed west again, intent of travel’s circle. I pulled over at the Elm Islands, two wrists of rock from the submerged sea-giant; the Elms belong to the birds and, of course, to the sea. A lone tree centers the larger of the two Elms, and it is an elm, brought these two miles offshore by human hand. The local forester who made this transplant did so in honor of his father, who loved trees, elms especially. And so far, the disease that’s after our mainland elms hasn’t crossed the water; it is a hopeful tree.
Stopping at the Elms is free, and, as I drank my water and munched my oats, I was grateful to whatever power has kept it so.
Perhaps that gratitude was precursor to some news that came my way when I returned to the screens and pings of the hurried world. There in local headlines was announcement of a national monument near Katahdin (which, by the way, has no Mount before it – Katahdin means greatest mountain in the Penobscot language, and so, no need for the English repeat). Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an 87,500-acre seed of preserved land to complement Percival Baxter’s remarkable gift of 200,000 acres that form Baxter Park. Roxanne Quimby’s gift – made possible, I suppose, by the labor of millions of Burt’s bees – matches Thoreau’s ’59 advice and our best instincts at a time when appeal after appeal is being made to our worst. It is a seed of wild happiness.
Or, in fitting with my day just floated, a land enough apart for a tree to grow.
“One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix Nebulosa (now Strix Varia)) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I was standing within a rod of him…and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings of unsuspected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them.” Thoreau, Walden, “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors.
An hour or so into some trail time on a little mountain, I was reminding myself to pay attention as I stepped amid the glacial gifts of angled rock. Running, like much of life, is all about being where you are, even as it seems to aim at “getting there,” and so, on a good day with a good mind, the ten-foot puzzle before you is all you see. And that kind of focus can spawn rhythm that is pure pleasure.
I’d reach such a state, and it had been amplified by the occasional laughing call of a pileated woodpecker, a top-5 bird in my thin book, when motion on the front periphery of vision startled me. My head lifted to the sight of wings – broad wings – and, predictably in my jostled state, I caught a toe. It took a few steps to settle the enterprise that is me in motion and regain balance; then, I looked up: the wings hadn’t gone far, and they resolved in a large brownish bird perched on a limb a dozen feet above and ahead. The bird had his back turned to me; I was being shunned.
Then, in that eerie way some birds can, this one rotated his head 180 degrees, and suddenly, I felt seen. We locked eyes and I thought, “ah, that’s why there was no sound as he rose from the ground – OWL!
At first, we simply stared at each other. I felt compelled not to look away; he was not shy or shying. As the moment settled into the stillness of wonder, he kept on looking, and I began measuring – somewhere over a foot in length; rounded head (no tufts), thick body – and I noted his coloring aloud to fix it in my mind – middle-to-light brown stripes, slightly-dirty white.
I wondered if, in his fixed gaze, he was doing the same: whitish hair (what there is of it), a little short for his species, curious, and (what’s this?) given to talking to birds. He’s calling me Mr. Owl, and I am Ms. to begin with, and he’s going on about meeting me; well, the few who do come here do seem different from those I watch while I soar out at dusk to look for dinner. He seems harmless.
After a while, the reel that is time caught on it sprockets and the day jerked into motion again. I had to reach the end of my trail-puzzle and move on, and the owl, as the sun slipped down, had rodents on his mind. I began searching for rhythm in the rocks, and Ms. O swiveled her head that 180 degrees and looked forward into the forest. We all moved on.
Postrun: a bird-ID-search easily turned up a Barred Owl as match for my meeting, and I read a little family history, noting that, when followed over time, most Barred Owls stayed within 6 miles of their original sightings. So it’s likely I’d been in the house of Ms. Owl, a visitor there. Welcome or not was hard to tell, but the wonder was easy to feel.
My mind, like many, like Henry Thoreau’s, is drawn by symmetry, and so the date 8/8 seemed cast as a lure. It was, as is often true in this column, morning, time of coffee and a little reading (see below) and backyard gazing. And, as I idled, the day seemed the one where the month had tipped, begun its sidle to September.
I intuited this in part because the traffic at the blueberry flughafen, where for these weeks our backyard birds, led by catbird and cardinal, have sought their berries, had dropped off. It had gone from being a metropolitan fly-in to a sleepy regional airport, with its mechanic napping in his shaded chair.
And, where just days ago, I could see clustered rounds of blue, a promise of berries, now I could see only a sparse dotting of green, summer’s leftovers. Enough, to be sure, to keep the catbird coming and going, but that morning s/he was the only flier.
This stretch days sometimes feels like a slow inbreath, before the rush of fall comes on, before school gathers in the summer-dreamy children, before the winds arrive in earnest. I am deep in August, but always aware that what’s next is stirring nearby.
And so I smiled especially at what my morning readings – of book and berry bush – brought me to. Here’s the opening stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem 316, written some time in the Thoreau-familiar year of 1862:
The Wind didn’t come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor joggle a Hat —
He’s a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —
These lines made me think of September and Thoreau simultaneously — the wind and the word, transitive, yes, but I can “Rely on that —“ arriving all the way from 1862.
August 9 – Wednesday. — to Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing. Thoreau, Journal, 1854
This morning’s poem is Ode to Enchanted Light, one of Pablo Neruda’s poems to the usual, or to the extraordinary everyday. And, for me, it must be in translation. Still, its long vertical line invites me forward; the pages pass rapidly, satisfying the little workman inside me, who likes to get things done.
But, perhaps to the workman’s chagrin, my eyes and mind keep snagging on apt phrases, on insights, and then, I slow, often lay the book back and gaze out into the early light of the backlit yard. A mourning dove wings down and begins hunting seeds, which, in this season, seem numerous; then, the bird stops, appears to contemplate something and pecks down, lifting then a stalk with a dead, brown clover flower on it. The dove lifts it up and down, looking like a pump handle after the morning’s water. “What’s this?,” it seems to ask; then it struts a little – such a fine find; I am the bird.
Like reader-me, the dove gives up the task of finding seeds, of getting on with it, and seems fascinated with the stalk and its browned flower. It struts some more, turning as if to show its prize in all angles and lights. I become convinced – the dove is the bird. My little workman frowns.
Then, suddenly, the dove arrows off. It is swift and gone, though still holding tight its brown flower. I am about to read a next poem, when today’s date flashes in my mind – 8/9; ah, it is pub-day: Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, is 162 years into its world tour, and it shows no signs of flagging. I go to the bookshelf and pick a copy from the line. It has a brown cover; I hold it aloft – my brown flower discovery. I check its angles in the morning light. I resolve to go “to the woods.” Then, I arrow off into the day.
“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” Thoreau, Journal, 12/11/55. Note: Though this lead-in entry from Thoreau’s Journal comes from the other side of the year, it’s phrasing seems perfect for what I’m seeing now. Just so with Henry, I think – he could see all the way to summer even on the shortest of days.
Early August: my daily negotiation with the squirrels and birds continues. From the deck of the breakfast table, I watch the blueberry bushes. Last month they looked as if they bore hundreds of little white candles to summer’s birthday; now, they offer a slow genuflection as their green-going-purple berries swell a bit each day and pull their branches down. It looks to be another good year. Albeit a contested one.
Here, for one, is a gray squirrel. He is well fed, amply rounded in this season of abundance, and he has an eye on my berries. A few don’t bother me, but if he picks to pack that rounded belly full, I will rise from my chair, open the window and hiss/bark at him – some hybrid threat intended to make me sound like trouble.
A few minutes ago, on of Henry Thoreau’s “striped squirrels,” known to us as chipmunks, emerged from beneath a branch facing me. “What a fat face you have,” I might have said if I were in nursery-rhyme frame of mind. Instead, I gawked and then began calculating: that must be at least four berries per cheek to get such a bulge. The chipmunk made for the yew bush in looping hops, and perhaps I imagined that his heavy head brought him down from each hop a little faster, but I don’ think so.
No-picking peace resumes. But only for a minute. Then, the catbird returns. He or she is a choosy sort, given sometimes to plucking a berry, rolling it in beak, and then…gasp…flicking it away over winged shoulder before seizing another. Scandalized then, I half-rise from my chair.
But this time, the catbird has junior in tow, and, as I watch, adult-C gives junior-C a berry tutorial. First she – let’s call our adult the mother of our backyard trio – hops 360 degrees around junior, getting, I suppose, his attention. Teachers will recognize this behavior. Then, with junior focused, she leaps/flies up a foot and nabs a berry from a low branch, settles back by junior and shows him the berry…which she then eats. Good bird.
Junior hops a bit and then waited. Where’s mine his head-tilt seems to say…mine, and mine and mine…it’s always appeared. In answer, the lesson gets repeated, even mama swallowing the plucked berry. Really? Junior seems to say. But then in somewhat ungainly imitation, he leaps at a berry…and misses. Ah, I think, it does take teaching and learning; even catbirds aren’t berry-adepts. The whole he’s-a-natural argument often hides the natural’s teachers, but there she is.
The lesson goes on, and mama-catbird must be working up a hunger with all her hopping because she eats more berries than I’ve ever witnessed. Finally, Junior nabs one.
Even I fluff my feathers with pride. It takes a whole berry-bush to raise a catbird.
by Deborah Bier
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Gardening deliberately is how we manage the 1878 Kitchen Garden at Thoreau Farm, the birth house of Henry David Thoreau.
Such gardening is also one way to live deliberately and to become more present to all that is unfolding within and around our garden. A garden is a place of constant change, and, If we are conscious and aware of its nuances, we can be more responsive to its needs. Here at the birthplace, we explore all garden choices carefully, making decisions reflective of our deepest values and principals. I do not follow any single practice or school of gardening, no pre-set protocols. Instead, through study and experience, I’ve equipped myself with a wide variety of approaches, using the each one to meet the challenge of the moment. I rely strongly upon observation and experimentation, and, in turn, the garden regularly reminds me to be open and aware, present to the moment.
Thoreau Farm’s garden is entirely individual – it will never be exactly replicated anywhere else, not even in the same spot from one year to the next. And so, no famous book, gardener, farmer or horticulturist can know what to do with this kitchen garden better than those who tend and visit it often.
Like any type of deliberation, gardening deliberately is the opposite of living on “autopilot.” It is responsiveness, not knee-jerk reaction. It involves being fully alive to the experience, not being distracted, numb or deadened. The sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes of the garden … the patterns and colors, the scent of the leaves, the feel of the wind – these are a source of much of my joy as I work here.
“The true cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life that is required to be exchanged for it.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden
And so I ask: Is “the amount of life required to be exchanged” for these garden tasks really worth their cost in time, energy, money, and opportunity? And from the sunflowers, from the squash, I hear answer – “Yes, they say. Yes.”
What is truly the most important task in the garden today? What is really not crucial, or even a waste of time? How much is on the list because it’s what we think must be done – because that is what we have been told to do by others?
Such deliberation almost always leads to simplifying, throwing out some hallowed methods in favor of ones that more closely mimic the processes we discover. In doing so, we have ended up with what we think are some very effective gardening methods that also are a lot less time consuming and exhausting.
Let me give you an example of deliberate laziness we’re practicing during this nearly rainless and hot summer. Wild animals are desperate for water. Baby ground hogs and rabbits amazingly fit between our one-by-four-inch fence wires, and have eaten all of our beans and brassicas down to nothingness.
We could spend a lot of time and energy replanting multiple times, and go to all kinds of extreme measures to exclude, trap, or kill these animals. But we realize humans do not depend upon these particular crops to survive, and that replantings will end up being eaten by the next litter of baby rabbits (rabbits produce up to three litters per year; woodchucks, just one). We could also get very upset and angry at the animals, declaring war on them. But that, too, is likely a waste precious human resources.
So we are instead choosing to be happy with the crops we have that are growing well, despite the weather. We’ve chosen instead to exercise our “citizen scientist” muscles and learn from observing the garden under these conditions. Now we’re noticing what crops thrive best in the dry heat, and which are struggling. We’re also seeing which parts of the garden are doing better than others due to variations in soil quality, identifying areas we should improve this year or next. This is all important to learn as more extreme weather patterns become the norm, and gardeners need to adapt to varying unexpected conditions.
There are as many trends in gardening as there are other here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions. There are also sound gardening practices that become overblown into rigid, unbending systems with dozens of rules that adherents demand be followed exactly. You must, you should… you cannot, you must not. Adhering to so many pre-set rules is not being responsive to your garden, your conditions, your abilities. Too many rules can actually create failure, not success, because their requirements are often complex, and there are too many to follow dependably. Such complexity also risks feelings of failure and anxiety in the gardener, which intrude on the joy of putting hands into warm, fragrant soil. How often do we end up feeling that we can toil all day and never get everything done, much less done correctly or well? Such work is not gardening deliberately, though it is a form of gardening.
It turns out that deliberate laziness was deeply intertwined with Henry Thoreau’s life and philosophy, though he never used the term. He wrote that he became rich by intentionally reducing his wants. By living simply, he determined he could meet all his needs by working a mere six weeks a year. In 19th century American terms, he was considered extremely lazy. In 21st century terms, unlike so many of us, Henry was not too busy to pursue his self-created life path. Only six weeks of work annually – think about the richness of life you could experience in 46 work-free weeks every year!
Reading about kitchen gardens in the 19th century suggests they were not the place for laziness, deliberate or otherwise. Mostly tended by women who toiled endlessly, these kitchen gardens leave me utterly depressed and discouraged. But by applying the standard of deliberate laziness to Thoreau Farm’s kitchen garden we’ve updated the form to one that is far easier for 21st century denizens to embrace.
Though a planned-for trip fell through, a few smaller adventures took its place, and one summer dusk, I found myself sitting in the back of an old, tin-walled church that had become what it once was, a community center in Deer Isle, Maine. The small building was full, its hardwood pews chocked with the fire-marshal-approved 5 people per, though I’m guessing that we now average more girth than the 5-somes that sat there 100 years ago. Until the windows were opened the air was fuzzy with heat. Our small cohort had gathered to hear from Maine’s new poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum. Stu, as islanders called him, would read a few poems and talk some about writing and creativity – “What’s the engine for that life?” asked the flyers posted around town, where most engines power lobster boats or pick-ups.
Kestenbaum began with three poems, and, with their clear narratives, they made easy listening, by which I mean the poems could be followed, not that they were facile. Then, in conversation with another poet, he began to talk about sustaining writing over time and amid other work – poetry may be a calling, but it isn’t often fiscally-sustaining work. Asked about his “deal” with the state for his 5-year laureate’s term, Kestenbaum said he looked forward to being “waved through the tolls on the turnpike.” Compensation clearly would come as something other than money.
“I’ve heard that reading 100 poems for every one you write is a good ratio,” he said, and then he outlined a morning where he read poems to begin his day, prime his mind. Tucked into my rear pew, I resolved – for the xth time – to go and do likewise, to read from what Robert Bly once called “News of the Universe” instead of the news websites that excite all the wrong sectors of my mind.
And so on this late summer morning, when, a month-plus past solstice, I note that sun’s shifted slightly lower in the pines, I open Take Heart, an anthology of Maine poems put together by Kestenbaum’s predecessor, Wesley McNair. And, on page 146 (I dip and read at random), I find this poem by Robert M. Chute:
I’ve never found an arrowhead,
one flinty chip of history.
Young Thoreau, they said, if he walked by
some farmer’s fresh-plowed field could just
stoop down and pick one up. As if
the spirit that shaped them drew them
up to his attention. Stoney bread crumbs
no birds will eat, these points and flakes
led him from the town into the
saving woods and wilderness which might
save us all. His faith led him onto find
what he believed. We find,
he said, what we are prepared to see.
This seems just the way to begin the day.
Furnishing Walden a chair a bed a desk The desk came first in 1838 as it became apparent that the hours afoot would be brought here where they could be inked into lines that would circumscribe worlds - local paths, thickets, swamps, birds, insects, plants, the odd groundhog - all these ligaments and lineaments, a sort of puritan golem who would stir drafts later and one by one readers would walk out and be saved for a day and the next day each would saunter out again along those lines and every so often one would not return. He saw so far forward, you wonder if he lived in his world, but then you see him sprawled on the young ice inching out, reading the worm-trail of history in the mud the whole lens of coming winter flexing beneath him and you know from the seep of cold that he was there, and you know now know how you should live. You push back the chair and rock for a moment on the rockers he attached to allow for just this and you turn like a leaf in fall contemplative; it is, this walking motion, the birth of thought its pod opening like last year’s milkweed, its heart-shaped seeds suspended beneath the wisp of white sail as they float forth. All night long on the modified Chinese sedan that is your bed, its rattan hand holding you up, you dream and the small night animals in this patch of borrowed woodland say that you sleep and awaken everywhere at home.