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”
Welcome to the relaunch of The Roost, the Thoreau Farm Trust blog begun by Wen Stephenson earlier this year. Wen, an accomplished writer and journalist, agreed to conduct a series of interviews for Thoreau Farm to launch our site, and we are grateful for his wonderful work and for the many visitors who enjoyed it and left comments. We have archived Wen’s series here so you can read them at your leisure should you have missed them earlier. Please take a look!
We at Thoreau Farm hope you will be able to visit the birth house, where you can step into the room where Henry was born, have a picnic on the expansive grounds, and learn more about the influence Thoreau has had on people around the world. But until you can come by, we hope you will continue to enjoy The Roost, which seeks to promote Thoreau Farm as a “Birthplace of Ideas” to explore ways of “living deliberately,” whoever and wherever we are.
(Read part one of the exchange.)
* * *
From: Wen Stephenson
To: John Mitchell
First, it has to be noted that time and place, human and wild, have been preoccupations of yours for quite a while. And I want to ask you about time — both geologic and human-scale — and the concept of the “Anthropocene,” which collapses the two.
In Ceremonial Time, you wrote the natural and human history of (as the subtitle puts it) “15,000 Years on One Square Mile.” That square mile being Scratch Flat, as it used to be called, in Littleton. (Confession: after reading that book for the first time just a couple of years ago, I drove up to Littleton and poked around your neighborhood, book and map in hand, because you’d brought the landscape to life so vividly I had to see it for myself. I hope you’ll take that as the compliment it is.) Now, that book was published in 1984. I wonder, would you write it — or frame it — differently now, given what we know about climate change, the Anthropocene, and the deep uncertainty of our too-near human future on this planet? more »
The first time I met John Hanson Mitchell, the prolific author and longtime editor of Mass Audubon’s Sanctuary magazine, it was in September 2010 over lunch in Lincoln, Mass., not far from his office at Drumlin Farm. Engaging and generous with his time, he listened gamely as I talked about some crazy idea I had for an essay about walking to Walden Pond from my house in Wayland, just down the road from Concord and Lincoln. I’d sought him out because, as several people told me, if I wanted to write about Thoreau and the contemporary landscape around these parts, I needed to talk with John Mitchell — and read his books, like Living at the End of Time (1990), his fine memoir about building and living in a cabin at the edge of the woods behind his house in Littleton, just up the road from Concord; and Walking Towards Walden (1995), in which he and friends traipse cross-country, in one long day, from Littleton to Concord.
Nobody knows better than John Mitchell that “the wild” is just outside our doors, if we care to look. His highly regarded first book, Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile, published in 1984, is a thought-provoking extended essay on the natural and human history of his semi-rural neighborhood, known traditionally as Scratch Flat. Near the outset, he notes that many people doubted him when first told that, among the surrounding landscape’s abundant wildlife, they could find great horned owls living in the white pines a short walk from their backyards. This leads him to reflect: more »
Last week I wrote about Gaining Ground, the community farm and hunger-relief project out back of the Thoreau Farm house, and posted my interview with Michelle De Lima and Kayleigh Boyle, the farm’s co-managers. It turns out they wrote an item for Gaining Ground’s Spring newsletter about the new apple orchard they’re planting behind the house, on part of the Thoreau Farm Trust property. With their permission, I’m posting it here on The Roost. (You can download the full newsletter here in PDF format).
Growing Thoreau’s Apples
by Kayleigh Boyle and Michelle De Lima
“For I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from that, to keep my balance.” -Thoreau, “Wild Apples”
Want to try Thoreau’s favorite apple variety? Visit us on Virginia Road in a few years, and you can. Thoreau is said to have appreciated the Blue Pearmain apple for its tart flavor, which he thought was “almost as good as wild.” This spring, on land belonging to the Thoreau Farm Trust, we are planting an apple orchard designed with Concord history in mind. Growing alongside the Blue Pearmain will be Hunt Russet and Morse Late Sweet, two apples that originated in Concord in the mid-1700s. more »
Getting to know Thoreau Farm’s neighbor, Gaining Ground
“I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? … What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?”
–Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean-Field,” Walden
Writing there in Walden of his (successful) experiment in the bean-patch, Henry Thoreau got down to basics (as he had a tendency to do). Down to the fundamental questions: Why should I raise them? What shall I learn? And learn not only about the beans but about himself.
At the outset of my very first post on this blog, back in February, I mentioned that the Thoreau Farm property (the parcel owned by Thoreau Farm Trust on which the birthplace house sits) is adjacent to — in fact seamlessly connects with — a community farm and food project called Gaining Ground, dedicated to hunger-relief in the Boston area. Situated on 17 acres leased from the Town of Concord — on some of the oldest continually cultivated land in America (farmed for more than 350 years) — all of the farm’s organically-grown produce , more than 20,000 pounds per year, is donated to food pantries and meal programs, consumed within 20 miles of the farm and within 24 hours of harvesting. Community volunteers provide roughly two-thirds of the labor. more »
[UPDATE, 5/10/12: NASA’s James Hansen has a hard-hitting op-ed in today’s New York Times, which shows us what it looks like to take climate seriously. “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” he writes. Describing near-term scenarios, he continues, “If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically.” Bottom line: “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.”]
. . .
Back in March, just after we launched this blog at Thoreau Farm, I asked David Roberts of Grist in an email exchange what it would look like if our “Very Serious mainstream media” (as he likes to call it) started taking climate change seriously. If you missed it, the resulting exchange is worth reading (and was cross-posted at Grist).
Well, it may not have led the evening news (or even made it into your newspaper), but this past Saturday, we got to see what it looks like when ordinary citizens — all over the planet — take climate change seriously.
May 5 was the first “Connect the Dots” Climate Impacts Day, the latest “global day of action” spearheaded by Bill McKibben and 350.org. The idea was simple: thousands of people, in communities around the world, who are already feeling the impact of global warming got together for group photos, holding homemade “dots,” and sent them to 350.org. There, they joined a spectacular — and often moving — photostream at ClimateDots.org, “connecting the dots” between extreme weather and climate change (as scientists are already doing), and calling for action. (I organized an event in Wayland and spoke at the event in Concord, where more than a hundred people gathered at the Old Manse, right next to the Old North Bridge. You can see a great collection of photos from around Massachusetts at 350MA.org, a new statewide grassroots network that I’m helping to organize.)
One kind of “climate action” I didn’t see or hear mentioned on Saturday is the highly controversial (some say crazy) idea of “geoengineering.” For that, though, you can turn to this week’s issue of The New Yorker, its splashy “Innovators” issue, and a big piece by Michael Specter titled “The Climate Fixers.”
Everyone should read this piece, or at least the first two sections. Not because it adds terribly much to the well-covered topic of geoengineering (i.e., human manipulation of the atmosphere to counter the effects of climate change), but because Specter’s opening pages are as close as anything I’ve seen, in a “Very Serious” publication, to what I call the “WE’RE F****D. NOW WHAT?” framing of the climate story. A framing, in other words, that begins to level with readers about the extremity of the situation. more »
“In my walks I would fain return to my senses.”
I managed to get out for a much-needed walk this morning, over to a nearby conservation area in Wayland, where I live. At the heart of it is a big, open swamp, a quarter-mile wide, surrounded by thickly wooded slopes, a pond at one end. The air was surprisingly cold. The water up a bit after last week’s rains. The geese were out with their young ones. Clear sky.
“I enter a swamp as a sacred place — a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength — the marrow of Nature.”
That’s also from “Walking.” (And yes, I have a thing about that essay.)
Yesterday morning I was a guest speaker, along with two of my fellow initiators of Transition Wayland, at the historic First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) in Wayland center. I’m posting my talk here (you can read the others here). It’s not an exact transcript of my remarks (there was some ad libbing), but it’s pretty close. If you’ve been following this blog, some of it will sound familiar. The interviews and exchanges I’ve posted here in recent weeks were very much on my mind. more »
A conversation with journalist Mark Hertsgaard, author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
Mark Hertsgaard, an accomplished global-environmental reporter, wants you to remember the first Earth Day, how it really started, 42 years ago, on April 22, 1970. He wants to remind you of the far-reaching change it brought about — under a conservative Republican president, no less.
In an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation, Hertsgaard notes that here in the U.S., as Earth Day has become “a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt,” there are environmentalists who are ready to get rid of it altogether. But rather than do that, he writes: more »
April 1 . Walden is all white ice, but little melted about the shores…. We have had a good solid winter, which has put the previous summer far behind us; intense cold, deep and lasting snows, and clear, tense winter sky. It’s a good experience to have gone through with.
–Henry David Thoreau (from The Journal 1837-1861, edited by Damion Searls)
Remember winter? Here in New England, especially this year, the experience (good or otherwise!) of “intense cold, deep and lasting snows,” seems like a fading memory.
Amy Seidl has been tracking this change — not just scientifically, but culturally, even psychologically. Winter, she writes in her much-admired 2009 book, Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, “is no longer the season it was a century ago…. The hard fact is we see far fewer periods of deep cold.” In that book, Seidl closely observes the landscape surrounding her home overlooking the Champlain Valley, and contemplates the effect of a changing climate on our senses and our inner lives. “What will happen to the world, to us,” she asks, “if a season like winter all but disappears as a result of global warming? Some have proposed that as our seasons begin to radically change we are becoming deseasoned, which refers to the experience of losing or skipping over a season.”
To grasp just how radical this shift is, try to imagine a “deseasoned” Henry Thoreau. I, for one, can’t. No winter, no Walden. more »
It was a great treat to see and hear Gary Snyder on Tuesday night at MIT, where he received the Henry David Thoreau Prize (for “literary excellence in nature writing”) from PEN New England. I’ve written a short piece on Snyder for this Sunday’s Boston Globe Books section, so I won’t say too much right now (I’ll post the link and a few more thoughts on Sunday).
UPDATE, 4/15/12: My appreciation of Snyder appears in the Globe Books section today (if you’re not a subscriber, you can also find it here, but the version behind the pay-wall is far more attractive and easier to read). I like the way my piece is paired with Christina Thompson’s review (for non-subscribers here) of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, by paleontologist Richard Fortey. It ties in nicely with the point I make about Snyder: my mini-essay begins with a note about climate change and the bristlecone pines, the earth’s oldest living trees, growing along the rim of the North American Great Basin, and a poem of Snyder’s, “The Mountain Spirit,” in which he spends a night among the bristlecones. I then write:
“Snyder has long been celebrated as a poet and essayist of place — Cascade peaks, Kyoto temples, Beat San Francisco, the South Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills where he’s lived since 1970 — and the idea of truly inhabiting one’s surrounding landscape is vital to his environmental ethic. But these days I think of Snyder, even more, as a preeminent poet of impermanence and time: from cosmic kalpas and geologic eons down to the evanescent ripple of the present moment.”
I go on to say that this interest in impermanence has never led him to passivity or fatalism in the face of suffering. I hope you’ll read the rest of the piece and let me know what you think.
But I do want to share some comments of Snyder’s, from his introduction to his reading at MIT, in which he drew an implied (or more than implied) connection between Thoreau and the 8th-century Chinese Buddhist hermit-poet Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”), whose poems Snyder (famously) translated in the 1950s while a grad student at Berkeley. It’s a connection I’ve thought about at times myself (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).
Snyder can be very funny in person. He admitted at the outset that he has sometimes struggled with Thoreau over the years. For instance, “Why the heck didn’t he get himself a girlfriend?!” When the laughter in the room subsided, Snyder continued (this is from my own recording): more »
The great American poet and essayist Gary Snyder will be in Cambridge tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 10, to receive the Henry David Thoreau Prize for “literary excellence in nature writing” (now there’s an understatement) from PEN New England. You’ll find the details online here. (The Poetry Foundation has a selection of Snyder’s poems and a few recordings online, which I recommend to the uninitiated.)
I’ll have more to say about Snyder and tomorrow night’s event in an upcoming post, but for now I’ll simply say that Snyder is a literary hero of mine. As I mentioned in a comment on my exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, Snyder’s engaged Zen Buddhism has great appeal to me (as a student of Zen myself). I see him as a profoundly unifying figure, bridging the divides between eco- and anthropo-centrism — and between withdrawal and engagement — that Kingsnorth and I represented in our “debate.” Perhaps Snyder should be a reconciling model for us both.
Stay tuned. More on this to come later in the week.
. . .
So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were — what’s the word? — rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bears…. whoops, I just did.)
“Children … wake up.”
So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.
I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.
Paul Kingsnorth responds
(See part one of this exchange.)
. . .
Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.
But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.
This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.
Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
– “State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012
That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)
Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):
It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.
Not Paul Kingsnorth. An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there. more »
In which I praise (sort of) The Boston Globe and look ahead to my conversation with Vermont ecologist and author Amy Seidl…
Though all eyes are on the Supreme Court this week, the big news on the climate and environment front is the EPA’s announcement of its rule curbing carbon pollution from new power plants. “The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States,” writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. (David Roberts over at Grist has an excellent rundown on “the top five things you need to know about EPA’s new carbon rule.”)
With all of that excitement, news readers in New England might have missed The Globe’s important (if somewhat low-key and underplayed) story by David Abel, headlined “Spring frost could doom early blooms,” about the wild swing in temperatures we’re experiencing right now, from unprecedented highs to a sudden freeze, and what it means for flowering trees and plants — and, perhaps even more important, for farms: more »
An interview with the 350.org founder, Keystone resister, Occupy supporter, Jesus follower (and, yes, Thoreau scholar)
“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present…. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated…. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament — the gospel according to this moment.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
“My only real fear is that the reality described in this book, and increasingly evident in the world around us, will be for some an excuse to give up. We need just the opposite — increased engagement. Some of that engagement will be local: building the kind of communities and economies that can withstand what’s coming. And some of it must be global: we must step up the fight to keep climate change from getting even more powerfully out of control, and to try to protect those people most at risk, who are almost always those who have done the least to cause the problem.”
-Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010)
“With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
-Climate activist Tim DeChristopher, after his sentencing in federal court in Salt Lake City, July 26, 2011
I take up that question in today’s Boston Globe Books section, in a “By The Book” essay on a recent collection of short fiction, I’m With the Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet (Verso). As it happens, the volume has an introduction by Bill McKibben, and I’ll be posting an interview with him — not about these stories but about climate and politics (and, yes, Thoreau) — here on The Roost this coming week.
The Globe essay begins this way: more »
Part three of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.
Couple more things:
– Jay Rosen (and plenty of others, including my old colleague Jim Fallows at The Atlantic) recently wrote about NPR’s new guidelines and the so-called end of “false equivalence” in reporting (giving equal weight to opposing “sides” in a debate, regardless of the evidence supporting one or the other). more »
Part two of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.
> deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.
I’d suggest that a position like this — “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable” — gets mentioned, maybe even discussed at some length (in the pages of the better newspapers and magazines), but is framed as, yes, deviant. The mainstream enjoys a little deviance — letting it into the discussion can be an amusing parlor game, and of course helps define the boundaries of what’s Serious (i.e. legitimate) and what’s not. Or are you saying there are truths and/or serious arguments about climate that really are unmentionable? more »
A central part of our mission at Thoreau Farm is to look squarely at the present and face, to use Thoreau’s language, “the essential facts.” To that end, if you’re not already reading David Roberts, longtime staff writer at Grist in Seattle, please start now.
Roberts is not only one of the smartest writers you’ll find on climate politics and policy, he’s got my vote for the most readable (any other nominees?). Which is no small achievement. The challenge of writing about climate change in an informed, urgent and accessible way — as anyone who’s ever tried surely knows — is daunting. more »
Early this morning, as I do a lot of mornings, I walked out into the parcel of conservation land, formerly part of a farm, behind my house in Wayland. I didn’t want to miss what could be the last frost of this season. more »
Last week in my introductory post, I suggested (only half jokingly) that I launched this blog “because I wished to blog deliberately.” Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write a Walden parody — for one thing, the competition is too intimidating; how could I top this? But I’ve been thinking that I should say a few more specific things about what I’m planning to do here (you know, just to “manage expectations,” as they say), and what it might actually mean to blog deliberately. more »
“The most alive is the wildest,” Thoreau wrote. I couldn’t help thinking of that line as I read the first pages of Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the book she’ll be reading from and discussing at our first Thoreau Farm Forum at Concord Academy this Sunday. Read Gornick’s opening paragraph, and you’ll see what I mean. It draws a bead on Thoreau’s idea of wildness as something within — something he wanted to liberate. She writes: more »
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, Ch. 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
I’m sitting here in the office at Thoreau Farm, in the house where Henry David Thoreau was born, in 1817, out on Virginia Road in Concord, Mass. It’s late-morning, quiet inside and out, another unseasonably mild winter day. A few minutes ago I took a brisk walk around the property. The house itself has been moved a few hundred yards from its original site, but I’m glad to say it still has a small working farm out back, a local community food project called Gaining Ground, dedicated to hunger relief in the area. An organic farm with a social conscience – it’s hard to imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace, or a better image with which to begin this blog.