Category Archives: Arts

Valentine to a Tree

Bear with me. I have a particular tree, or three, in mind.

Forewarning: I’ve yet to escape the pull of Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, which, for a Thoreau reader, appeals like catnip. Every x pages – pick a prime number – there he is, usually, as figure to contend with, but wearing too a scarf of written affection.

In particular, I’ve been taken by Pollan’s chapter on planting a tree, which, he hopes, will cast a positive reminder of his presence over the land where he lives in Cornwall, CT. His chosen tree is a Norway Maple, into which he is talked when his first choice, a Sugar (or rock) Maple, is deemed risky because of broad assault on it by the pear thrip, a scourge boosted by our region’s warming. And the planting of this tree, meant, over time, to provide crowning grace to the land, is central to the chapter, but it is also a pretext for a series of ruminations on trees and how we view them. Here we enter Thoreau’s woods. And others.

Pollan’s large argument is for a reimagining of our relations with nature, for abandoning the polarity of nature versus culture, or wilderness versus civilization. Excluding or trumpeting one in favor of the other leads invariably to trouble, he says, to an overemphasis, which unbalances us all in our cities and in our woods. Better, he says, to look to the tilled garden as an example of how we may live as part of/in concert with Nature. I think here also of the annual garden at Thoreau Farm.

And here Pollan is, I think, not as far from Thoreau as he says. Pollan likes to cast Thoreau as a wilderness zealot, a Romantic tree-hugger. But, even given some of his wild statements (“I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one…” Walking), Henry Thoreau lived in the margin, (“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life…” Walking) lived between town and wild, and he made much of that middle ground, which, when you think of it that way, sounds like a sort of gardening, an arrangement to work with Nature, to make choices and take responsibility for them. His rows of writing are the crop of that middle ground, and surely, they partake of both Nature and culture; they are its hybrid.

Which brings me to trees. Pollan likes to name trees of various eras, invoking our capacity (need?) for metaphor and forming general attitude toward what surrounds us, and so, in this tree chapter, we meet Puritan Tree, Colonial Tree, Romantic Tree, Political Tree. Each is valued and treated by human culture in a particular, often lumbering way. And, as he plants his maple, Pollan looks ahead, hoping for a reimagining of trees. Perhaps, he muses, we will have Lung or Canary Trees, named for their capacity to provide oxygen or let us know when things are amiss with climate. He finds those possibilities superior to Litigious Tree, citizen of a biocentric world, a tree with rights and standing to sue.

All of this reading and wondering has made me tree-aware, appreciative in an affectionate way, and that has sent me out the door to visit a White Pine that’s trailside on the way to our Commons. Each time I pass, I stop and run my hand over the rough corrugations of its bark, then lean in toward its trunk and look up: the pine obscures the sky; it seems to hold it up. And, as I lean there, balanced to its bulk, I hope that its tomorrow is like today – a little wind, a little snow, the company of the grove, and, in places, the warm hand of the sun. It is, I suppose, a Romantic Tree, but the day of hearts ahead is a conjury of human culture, and so perhaps the two balance each other.

Here’s to the trees in your lives; here, below, are some that I visit.





Well, now I'm cheating a bit, but I do visit this sequoia every time I go to the Luxembourg Gardens.

Well, now I’m cheating a bit, but I do visit this sequoia every time I go to the Luxembourg Gardens.

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Winter Reading

Even when I take some days away from reading Thoreau’s journals, as I have recently, he finds his way into my day.

For some reason February always contains time unaimed, and in it, I lose the linear resolve of reading. In books, line follows line, but in my mind ellipses take words’ places, and whole paragraphs go by in some sort of wooly time. I try again.

Just so yesterday, and I put aside the novel whose words are still novel to me and began to root in a bookcase. I needed something to read that I could read. For 7th time I pulled out Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, a book bought long enough ago to have endured some fading of its cover. Gardening, I thought; why not? Perhaps promise of green would distract me from the austere white that had fallen overnight and seemed to blanket my mind.


Pollan’s book began quietly, but early on there was small, contentious mention of Thoreau. He would, said Pollan wrangle some with America’s prophet of the wild; he would, it seemed, stake out some middle ground where a garden grows, and already the lines of argument seemed clear. Also, I was hooked. Out of my wooliness and into Pollan’s world.

It helped that his sentences were clear and clean, and it helped too that he began with little stories of his childhood and its first exposures to gardens and growings via familial tension between an imperious gardening grandfather and Pollan’s indoor-oriented, weed-tolerant father.

And then Pollan’s contentions with Thoreau offered me a few of my own with Pollan – more reason to read on; the book was now burred to me.

Perhaps you too talk back to books you like. Here’s one little conversation from yesterday:

Pollan: Thoreau is gardening here, of course, and this forces him at least for a time to throw out his romanticism about nature — to drop what naturalists today hail as his precocious “biocentrism” (as opposed to anthropocentrism. But by the end of the chapter, his bean field having achieved its purpose, Thoreau trudges back — lamely, it seems to me — to the Emersonian fold: ‘The sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction…Do not these beans grow for woodchucks too?…How then can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?’

Surely, Henry, rejoice. And starve.

me: Ah, Michael…At the outset, Henry describes his time and work at Walden as an “experiment”; no less the bean field. And the purpose of that experiment is expansive, is to press understanding outside the narrow rows of his time’s dominant industry, agriculture. Henry’s bean field chapter is, in part, celebration that he will not have to tie himself to a life of beans and starve his mind, that sun can shine on him “without distinction” as well.

I have, of course, done to Pollan what he has done to Thoreau, plunked him down without full context to contend a point. But isn’t that the real fun of finding yourself drawn into a book’s lines, where you find yourself mumbling occasional objection and reaching for a pencil to scribble both retort and praise?

And, most important, I will read on.

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Once More to the Book

My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark… Thoreau, Walden

On the Saturday past, we arrived at Henry Thoreau’s birthplace just as Corinne Smith began her author talk about her new book, Henry David Thoreau for Kids. We squeezed into the only remaining seats in the house’s family room and listened as Smith outlined the process through which her book came together. As I’ve often found, when listening to authors describe their work, that process, which, for Smith, had yielded orderly, attractive result, can be nonlinear, with inspiration and answer to question arriving from many directions and sources. Smith, like many Thoreauvians, has a broad network of Thoreau contacts, and many of them had helped her find answers and activities for her book. A number were in the room.

Corinne Hosfeld Smith's photo.

Corinne Smith at Thoreau Farm for her book’s launch


So too was Henry. Not the Henry who was born in the room upstairs, but a modern Henry, who was one of Smith’s first readers. I’d read first about this young, modern Henry in one of Smith’s blog-posts last year, and now, as one of this book’s intended readers, here he was. That was fun.

So too were Smith’s descriptions of finding some of the activities that suit the book to kids of all ages (many older kids peopled the room too). I particularly liked the outline-the-house activity that helps someone gain a sense of the scale of Thoreau’s famous house at the pond. There, outside the birthplace, was the green outline Smith had made, and even though the reading room was crowded, I knew that we could all fit within the outline.

Memory sent me back to a November morning a few years ago when I had taken 33 students to see sunrise at the pond. First, we had walked out to the house-site, with its outline-posts of granite and the chains that link them. There, we’d all stepped inside the chains, and I’d read from the Walden passage in Economy where Thoreau begins the house’s construction. Some students had said in surprise, “Hey, we all fit in here easily.” And it was true; there was even room for more, if some early visitors had wandered by. That, I thought, is the value of experience, which often brings words to life, and, in doing so, allows us to fit ourselves into that life.

Just so with Corinne Smith’s book: Henry David Thoreau for Kids surely brings its clear, resonant words and ample illustrations to life in its joined activities for kids (of all ages). And surely some of its sentences began their lives written on bark. Your copy awaits you.

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