Category Archives: Arts

Thoreau & Twain on Learning and Loss

By Corinne H. Smith

Unless you’re shelving classics in alphabetical order by surname, the names of American authors Henry Thoreau and Mark Twain don’t usually surface at the same time. The two men never met, although their lives overlapped by 27 years. Twain began his writing career just as Thoreau was ending his. By then, they were based on opposite sides of the country. Their writing styles and choices of topics differed widely, of course. But both wrote travel narratives. And both were known for their keen powers of observing the activities of nature and man. Overall, Henry focused more on the first; and Mark, more on the second. Both had unique senses of humor, too.

Thoreau and Twain Together

Thoreau and Twain Together

One issue they may have agreed on was the costs they both incurred by choosing a certain way of earning money. They could have debated their results. Is it possible to be TOO familiar with Nature? Do we lose something irreplaceable when we gain too much technical knowledge of the natural world? Consider these two passages.

In his journal entry for January 1, 1858, Thoreau mourns the loss of finding wildness after conducting a lot of surveying:

“I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind’s eye – as, indeed, on paper – as so many men’s wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at any given moment passing from such a one’s wood-lot to another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.”

Compare these thoughts to those in Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in Chapter IX, called “Continued Perplexities.” He describes losing the ability to see beauty after learning to navigate a steamboat across the muddy Mississippi:

“Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!”

Twain recalls – to a time when he was known as Sam Clemens – how he once had been captivated by sunsets or by moonlight reflected in the water. He could relish the sights of ripples, sunken logs, and other imperfections that made the river view more interesting. These were the same idiosyncrasies that could have consequences if you happened to be steering a paddlewheel craft through the water. Now all he could see were potential navigational obstacles.

“But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. … No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”

These are sad words to read. Especially since both men were writing about their home territories and about places they loved. Walden Woods. The Mississippi River. I hope they both overcame these losses, and that these were only temporary setbacks. Or maybe the stresses were more complex. Maybe the men also inwardly bristled at the situations that forced them to be responsible to others for that keen but necessary focus on science and mechanics. Henry reported to the landowners. Young Sam Clemens’s duties were to a steamboat company and to an ever-changing packet of passengers. Neither had much time for sheer appreciation of the landscape.

And yet, I keep Thoreau and Twain in mind as I continue to read and learn more about plants and animals and habitats and such. If I’m in the forest, and I come upon a leaf that I recognize, will I be apt to say, “That’s a white oak,” and never look up at the terrific silhouette of the tree it came from? I wonder: If we learn “enough” about the natural world, do we risk never having another chance to witness its wildness or beauty? Will the facts always get in the way?

I can’t be the only one who worries about this dilemma. Surely scientists and park rangers must wrestle with it, too. Do you?

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

Protean Snow

It’s not hard to decipher where this title came from. Like our touchstone, Henry Thoreau, I have been outside, and now, from my morning chair by two large windows, I can see the sheets, flurries and wind-worries of leftover storm, which follows earlier storm and, I suppose, anticipates the next. We are in the thrall of snow. And, while we missed the two feet predicted 48 hours ago, this winter’s full measure has been enough to send me “up-roof,” as my neighbors say, to see about easing the load on our sun-state-design, shallow-pitched roof.

Up there, I’ve found a stratigraphy of this remarkable geology of snow, in which I read its narrative, even as I remove it. Each storm has its story, which is, in turn pressed down and preserved by the next. This morning, I put in about an hour of shoveling, flinging an estimated 3000 pounds of snow over the edge, where it grew into piles that should remind into May. When I climbed down and went to move the flank of one of those piles, I encountered a familiar metamorphosis. The soft snow I had thrown easily from the roof had set like the whitest concrete; when I did chop some of it free, it came off in dense chunks. The shift from angel snow to construction-grade hardpack had taken less than an hour.

Wages of Shoveling

Wages of Shoveling

Which got me thinking about transformations. Which got me thinking about avalanches.

A decade or so ago, I was sent a book for review (review appended at the end of this post). I read Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck avidly and with increasing admiration. Fredstone and her husband Doug Fesler (composers of most interesting northern lives) are avalanche experts from Alaska, and her 2005 book distilled their experience and a series of harrowing narratives into a very readable chronicle of moving snow. The book has since become a must-read for many avalanche courses.

What I recalled from the book was the wild variety of snows on offer, and the way it emphasized moving snow’s grip when it comes to rest. What seems a wonderland of sliding can become, rapidly, a hard, gripping reality.

As I’ve read through Thoreau’s 1855 and 1856 winters, while this Winter of ’15 mesmerizes, I’ve noted down its snows. And now in its deepness, I climb to my roof and read its layerings. It occurs to me that I am in the company of Proteus, the shapeshifter; day after day, as I wrestle with him, he keeps changing.

Snowstory

Snowstory

A Review of Snowstruck.

Jill Fredston.
Harcourt 2005
352 pages
$24.00

Snowstruck’s chapter three opens with a photo of a long chain of people ascending Alaska’s wintery Chilkoot Pass. Soon the reader learns that everyone in the photo is doing “the Chilkoot Lockstep,” an uphill shuffle to the top of the pass and a chance at joining the 1898 gold rush into Alaska’s Klondike. But a reader who knows snow might be pardoned for wondering what all those people were doing tramping together across a slope that looks distinctly like avalanche terrain. “Seeking fortune,” would be the ready answer, but of course those who seek gold often find hard lessons rather than wealth, and most of these Klondike stampeders found hardship in abundance. Later in the chapter, woe visits in the form of one of history’s deadliest avalanches, wiping out tens of stampeders.

The story of these Klondike aspirants is uncovered by one of Snowstruck’s central characters, snow and avalanche guru Doug Fesler, who also happens to be the author’s husband (their romance is a subplot of this larger love affair with snow). Fesler is digging back through old newspapers to learn more of avalanche history in Alaska (their home state). It is a measure of his and the book’s focus on avalanches that he will closet himself in small, dark rooms to read microfilms about snow sliding a hundred years ago. That he is rediscovering an intimacy of knowledge about the natural world that Alaska’s aboriginal people had casts Fesler (and the author) as valuable anachronisms, albeit ones who use modern analytic tools. They are the ones who remind us in lucid detail of what is lost when we march in lockstep pursuit of wealth and out of right relationship with nature – we might as well be crossing a perilous slope poised to carry us all away.

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

Found Feathers

Whenever and wherever I walk I keep an eye out for feathers, though I will say that during blueberry time, I see only those of the blue jay; then, all awareness is aimed at discovery of blue. Many of our birds don’t wear gaudy coats, and so whatever they shed as they fly or flurry is some shade of brown or gray. And so, not easily seen. Until you begin seeing them; then, they turn out to be everywhere. Or at least in many places.

Trace of turkey

Trace of turkey

In midstate New Hampshire, where we go to find mountains, we keep a glass of found feathers. Over the years, visitors have also added to this clutch, until the glass has become a sort of aviary, or record of one. But none of us has Sibley-like ability to identify all the former owners of these feathers. Yes, there are the unmistakable – we think – yellow and brown of the cedar waxwing, the ubiquitous jay, and, of course, the flashy cardinal. And the wild turkey, which at times dominates a nearby upper pasture in big flocks, scatters its distinctive feathers liberally, though watching a turkey struggle to be airborne, one would think it had no feathers to spare. At one time, I wanted to gather a small book, a book of feathers, that would help walkers identify the birds who left these feathers on the ground. An artist friend would draw each feather, and we would figure out to which bird it should be reattached, offering a short paragraph and picture of the bird. I’ve settled for our glass record of flight instead.

IMG_0330

But many of the solitaries in the glass, (some large flight feathers from hawks or owls I like to think), draw attention not for their former owners’ (imagined) names, but instead for the winter flower they form together. There, curving up and out from their wine glass, is reminder, flower of flight, in the midst of this cold season when we often feel grounded. And in all seasons, these feathers are record of attention as we walk, little findings that draw us deeper into both walk and world. Another sort of flight.

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Filed under Arts, General, Nature, The Roost