Category Archives: Arts

Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, The Roost

Down Came a Spider

By Corinne H. Smith

Ask anyone who knows me. They’ll confirm that my main priorities in life do not include housekeeping tasks.

So I wasn’t completely surprised one morning when a spider appeared in front of me as I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes. (Yes, every few days I wash the dishes by necessity, by hand.) She had dropped down from her nearly-invisible web at the place where the wall meets the ceiling. She just hung there, by a thread in mid-air, right at my eye level. “Hello,” I said. “How are you? Is your name Charlotte?” I laughed at my joke. If she responded, it was in a way or in a language that I could not decipher.

What could I do? My hands were wet and soapy. I didn’t want to hurt this spider. But I did want to discourage her from landing on the counter, where she could get accidentally crushed. So I came up with the idea of disturbing her lightly by blowing in her direction. My breath made her sway toward the window. After a few seconds, she got the message. She hoisted herself back up to her ceiling perch. Quite quickly, too. Spiders are amazing creatures.

A few days later, when I was washing the dishes again, Charlotte came down to visit me a second time. Now I gave her a good look as I talked to her. I saw that her two front legs were longer than the other six, and they looked as if they had little hooks on them. She was so tiny, though. She was smaller than the fingernail on my pinkie. When I blew in her direction this time, she dropped down to the edge of the cat’s water dish. Oh no! Had I drowned her? Evidently not. She sat there for a bit, then once again hoisted herself back up to the ceiling. I was still amazed.

The third time she dropped down in front of me, I decided to get an even closer look at her. I wanted to figure out what kind of spider she was. So I wiped off my hands and went into another room to grab a magnifying glass. When I came back to the kitchen, Charlotte was close to the counter. I moved the magnifier gently over her and leaned down to get a peek. Well, she was having none of this. She must have seen my action as an intrusion of privacy or even an outright threat. She nearly flew back up to the ceiling, seemingly in a rage. I was disappointed, but I understood. I put the magnifier away and finished washing the dishes. Every once in a while, I looked up and spied Charlotte sitting in her web near the clock. I sensed anger and a feeling of betrayal. I apologized to her for my arrogance.

Charlotte II

Charlotte II

As I thought about these encounters, I wondered if Henry Thoreau had any similar meetings with spiders. I searched his journal entries and didn’t find any appropriate passages. Then I realized the obvious secondary connection: E. B. White, renowned essayist and author of the children’s book “Charlotte’s Web,” had been a devoted fan of Henry Thoreau. Perhaps it was this inclination toward a close inspection of nature that drew him to study and to write about a spider in “Charlotte’s Web” and a mouse in “Stuart Little.” I decided to follow this diversion and briefly revisit White’s Thoreauvianism.

Elwyn Brooks “Andy” White (1899-1985) first read “Walden” as an undergraduate at Cornell University. It became his favorite book and the one that affected him the most. In an essay simply called “Walden,” White shared the details of his pilgrimage to Concord in June 1939. He drove into town on MA Route 62. (MA Route 2 had yet to be built.) He walked to the pond via Main Street, Thoreau Street, and MA Route 126. He passed the Golden Pheasant lunchroom and the Walden Breezes trailer park before heading downhill for the shoreline. He spoke of bathers, boaters, and the litter lying around the park. Thoreau’s house site was marked, but not as exactly as it is today. And White didn’t think very highly of the cairn, even though he found a rock to add to it. “It is a rather ugly little heap of stones, Henry,” he wrote. He walked back to the town center along the railroad. It’s difficult to know if he considered the trip worthwhile or disappointing. His total bill for staying one night and eating at Concord’s Colonial Inn came to $4.25.

In 1954, the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Walden” stirred White to write an essay that was both a tribute and a literary analysis. It was published variously with the title “A Slight Sound at Evening” or “Walden 1954.” Nearly every sentence glows with admiration. Even White found it difficult at times to be so enamored with Henry and with “Walden.” “To admire the book is, in fact, something of an embarrassment,” he wrote, “for the mass of men have an indistinct notion that its author was sort of a Nature boy.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I enjoyed reading E. B. White’s essays, but I had to return to the present day. Naturalists will tell you that you’re never more than three feet away from a spider. Our Charlotte has been busy in the past weeks, catching flies and other tiny insects in her ever-enlarging web. She finally dropped down to see me yesterday when I was washing the dishes yet again. This time, it was just a chance for us to say hello to each other. Then she pulled herself back up to the ceiling. I think we’re on good footing again.

Charlotte provides a nice little pest-removal service for us. Maybe I don’t need to know exactly what kind of spider she is. She’s a helpful and social one. And thanks to fellow Thoreauvian E. B. White, I can at least give her a first name.

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

On Taking Down a White Pine

Famously, Henry Thoreau built his house in the woods from “some tall, arrowy white pines” that he cut down “still in their youth.” And, less famously, a page or so later in Walden, he contends, “Before I had done I was more friend than foe of the pine tree…having become better acquainted with it.” Perhaps. I’ve had Thoreau’s experience and passage in mind recently as I’ve felt my own imperative to cut down a pine. Here’s that story.

It’s a mid-afternoon in early August when the white truck with WellTree, the company logo, on it rolls up. It’s a bucket truck, and it’s followed by a bulky-bodied cousin dragging an industrial-sized chipper (think Fargo). Two thirty-something men with orange headphones around their necks step down from the trucks in our driveway and begin to size up a large white pine on the front lawn; I walk out to meet them and redirect them to the pine with four leaders on the fringe of the driveway. A few second pass. “Geeze, Jeff,” one says under his breath. “This time of day?”

Pine Presence - this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Pine Presence – this one with 2 leaders stayed.

Jeff is WellTree’s owner, and a few hours ago, he appeared and wondered if his guys could begin on this tree a day early (One of their two bucket-trucks was in for repair, and they had two bucket jobs for tomorrow). “Sure,” I’d said.

And so his guys have arrived, but the 80-foot tree before and above them is not a mid-afternoon tree. “We were expecting something smaller,” the man, who will turn out to be the sawyer, says. Fifteen minutes later, the bucket truck is nosed up to the pine’s trunk and, headphones tight to his ears, he’s lifting off as the mechanical arm unflexes; he seems to fly up into the tree like an actor carried over stage by invisible wires. Thirty feet up, he fires up his saw and trims a spreading branch at the halfway point; then, he shifts the bucket five feet to his left, leans out with one arm and cuts the rest of the limb; it drops to the driveway with a body sound you feel through your feet. The usual day with its usual decisions goes away.

Feeling agitated and vague, I go inside to work; I can’t sit still. The saw snarls. Then the chipper’s motor adds its chewing bass note. I’m up pacing. I feel like the tree, I think; “well, that’s silly,” I say out loud. I sit again, read a sentence, then reread it, wonder what it’s about, can’t recall. “I feel like the tree,” I say aloud. The saw snarls again. The tree’s day has arrived. I have summoned it.

Taking down this white pine has not been a whimsical decision. We’ve been in our house for 11 years, and early on, noting the pine’s lean toward and over that house, we had some branches trimmed as guard against our regular ice storms. That seemed to suffice. And yes, it dripped pitch steadily on whatever was beneath it, but like all trees, as I swept its needles up every so often, it grew neighborly. Or I grew neighborly. But earlier this summer Ray, the man who helps us with our plants, called our attention to a seam in the trunk’s center; that wet, dark line appeared on both sides, and when you stood next to the trunk, the whole tree leaned over you in the direction of the house. “If this were my house,” said Ray, “I’d have that looked after.” And so, in this era when storms seem to have intensified and a new fungus has nipped at local pines’ needles, we called WellTree to have a look.

To begin with, this pine has four leaders, which any follower will tell you is three too many. I learn that pines growing without the tight neighborliness of other pines tend in this direction; they spread into available sky. But as they reach size all this spreading weight begins to pull the central trunk apart; the seam Ray pointed out is likely sign of the leaders’ branching out.

I look up through our clerestory windows. There’s more light in the sky; I go outside to watch. More limbs fall. The two machines snarl and growl, the smaller feeds the larger. Wood chips fly into the truck’s covered body; each chip is smaller than a thumbnail. I realize that I am sad. And once I’ve said “sad” to myself, as a I lean against our car’s body watching, the feeling takes hold deeply. The bucket moves like a conjurer’s arm. More pieces fall; tons remain upright. This, I realize, is going to take some time.

It’s nighttime. The men and their trucks have left. Two leaders of the pine remain at their full 80 feet. It’s raining lightly. I feel tears seep from my eyes. The sadness feels unalloyed, pure. What have I done? I ask. I want to look away; I can’t.

There is explanation; there is sense to be made: I’ve just retired from a 40-year teaching career and its everyday touch of youth and its fast-growing leaders. We’ve moved 130 miles from the school where we lived. Every day I press a littler farther into a shorter future. But really? That’s maudlin, and there’s as much to celebrate as there is to mourn, more really.

And there isn’t explanation. I’ve run the saw, felled trees, sometimes 10s of them in a day; I’ve burned wood for heat. I’ve lived in End-of-the-road New Hampshire in a wood-heated, or at least warmed, house.

Perhaps, I think, the time it’s taking offers some echo of just how long this pine has been aloft, stretching a little each day for the light in the sky, thickening to itself in rings over years. Perhaps it’s because I’ve ordered this, like some near general, and now I must sit in my bunker and watch my orders played out. Perhaps.

On the second morning, it takes longer. The two remaining leaders must be trimmed carefully – they rise over the neighborhood’s wires. And then, bringing their bodies down must happen in alternating ten-foot sections, with the rope tied off to the other leader-trunk. Flakes of sawdust float like a storm-ending flurry of snow.

Whittled now down to 40-foot stalk of pine. With our neighbor, Claude, I’m out watching this final trunk pulled down onto a cross-hatching of its brother stems laid out to protect the lawn some from the final fall. Post-image: after it comes down, and after the trunk is cut into eight-foot lengths, the sawyer is running the hydraulic arm that clasps and lifts each log into the truck’s body; when he raises the section with the seam in it, the log spins, and I can see that the seam goes all the way through the trunk; also, as the log rises a trail of liquid drips steadily from it – too fluid and frequent to be pitch, it must be some watery intermediate: yes, it drips like blood, but it also is some harbinger of rot.

The work order calls for this “low stump” to be left. We’ve said we’ll live with this before deciding what’s next. Now, in the aftermath, I’ve taken a seat there. First I’ve counted the rings, noting the flush years and the lean, saying the numbers aloud to keep from losing my place, then recounting to this: 63. Mild surprise – older, I thought, say in its 80s. The column of air above me where the pine was weighs little, best measured in ounces; the bushes and nearby trees eye the new open space.

Pine Absence

Pine Absence

Early evening of pine-absence: sunlight punctuated by distant thunder; the light gives way to a faux-dusk. A storm is lumbering in from the north. It breaks: flashed light, immediate thunder, rain that obscures everything beyond the yard – is there room for air amid such water? The backyard pines toss their branches in the furious air; the maples buck up high. I feel washed free.

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