Category Archives: Arts

Hearing a Voice

As is often true with reading, I hear a voice I’m clearly meant to listen to well after that voice has sounded; I am, as they say, late to the party. That surely was true for me with Henry Thoreau, whose then tangled sentences and habit of calling into question almost everything rolled my eyes as a teenager…just before they shut down in favor of the cinema that plays on the inside of our eyelids. That he would become a signal voice to me would have surprised my teachers, who often had to call me from the other-lands of reverie and classroom-sleep. I remembered that when I taught and had to use the gentle goad of my voice to recall my cine-dreamers.

These years later, I am a picky reader, in part because I am a slow one. If I am to spend time in the architecture of someone’s writing, I need to admire even the hallways, and I have particular need of the sudden light from a well-placed window. I pick up books, stroll some sentences and put them down; I even enjoy the mild irony that I too write little rooms that I hope readers will visit.

A while ago, as practice that I hoped would disentangle me from the internet as the yard wakened during my coffee, I began reading a poem or poems as I also tracked the bird-scurry by the feeder. Poets and birds often move similarly, and their words seemed to set up my own later in the morning.

Just so, right now. As the sun scrolls down the first-snowy pines, I read Kate Barnes’ “Other Nations,” a poem written first for another favored poet, Maxine Kumin. And, as has happened now for a number of days in a row, I disappear into its pages and lines. Barnes is a narrative poet – no sky of abstraction at which you gaze trying to name the shapes of clouds – who, late in this poem, takes you along for a buggy ride. Yes, it is, at times, horse-drawn poetry. But it moves at the pace of real perception – mine, anyways – and, when each ride is done, I am often elsewhere. Alive to the light, alive to the day, I’ve slipped the tether of the clicked world. I am alive to words and a voice that carries across time.

“Other Nations” is also about talking to animals, and, as my dogs over time would tell you, my canid diction may be limited, but I use it whenever a dog is near. And, like the good dog I sometimes am, I hear like voices across time.

Reader’s-note: I ration myself to a poem per morning; I will be well into winter before I look up from last page.

Bio-note: Kate Barnes was Maine’s first poet laureate, serving from 1996 to 1999. The volume I’m reading is called Kneeling Orion, published by David R. Godine, and, graced also by Mary Czarina’s woodcuts, it is a handsome book.

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Sidehill to December – Slant Walking

November 30th and a few streaks of sun break through the clouds, brighten the mountain and then vanish. Even as two darknesses are on the way – that of storm and that of December – the brief scene looks a little like a divine barcode, and, right now, in search of some trail-time after a day of talk, I’m buying.

For years I’ve made much of November for the quality of its slanting light and its long looks across terrain once obscured by summer’s foliage. It is, even as its days dwindle early, a season of discovery. December, however, has always felt like descent, and, were it not for the solstice turn near month’s bottom and the hoped-for flash of new snow, I’d opt for elsewhere.

But here, in the White Mountains that Henry Thoreau visited only in summer, I know also there’s beauty to be found on this crossover day, as he knew was true in all seasons and locales. Walking up for these few hours is simply another way of looking for it; it is kin to traveling “a good deal in Concord” and bringing back, perhaps, some word-leaves, or even a late blooming word-flower.

The trails I take work across slope, over the leaves of summer past, and it doesn’t take long to reach the clouds and their gauzy light. A scrim of snow deepens as I go up, though it, and I, never get to full winter. At the walk’s highpoint, a thousand feet above the valley, I pause at the juncture of trails, where one slants back down and, warm from climbing, savor a different season’s solitude. I’ll start down when I get a thermal prod, and I hope the forecast rain and sleet hold off until I get back to my car.

But really I hope only for what I have: this forested moment on crossover day, reminder that beauty and mystery are year-round.

Here, to follow, is short photographic saunter from the walk:

Sidehill up.

Sidehill up.

 

Along the upper contour.

Along the upper contour.

 

The crossover.

The crossover.

 

In the clouds.

In the clouds.

 

Snyder Brook going to winter.

Snyder Brook going to winter.

 

And on down.

And on down.

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

Let Him Step to the Music He Hears

Music at Thoreau’s Cove

“What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; ofttimes it drives us to suicide. … But let us hear a strain of music, we are at once advertised of a life which no man had told us of, which no preacher preaches. … The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death nor disappointment at the end of it. All meanness and trivialness disappear. I become adequate to any deed.” ~ Henry Thoreau in his Journal, January 15, 1857

By Corinne H. Smith

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for my hometown newspaper by reporter Tom Knapp. My book Henry David Thoreau for Kids had just been published, and Tom wrote a nice story about it and about me. Tom and I went to the same high school and have been acquaintances for the last ten years; yet this was the first time the subject of Henry Thoreau had come up in conversation. I was surprised but quite pleased to hear that Tom had connections to Thoreau and to Walden Pond himself. The interviewer became the interviewee, as I asked him questions in return. Here is his story.

Tom Knapp is a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He works as a news reporter for the daily newspaper here. He also plays the fiddle and bodhran in a local Irish band. He first came to Thoreau and Emerson through his older brother Bill, who is a big fan and who read all of Thoreau’s journals. Bill passed some of that admiration on to his younger brother. Tom says, “I was greatly impressed by their forward-thinking views on our places in society, and our ability to step outside the norm as defined by other people’s expectations. I also very much appreciated their views on nature, and our responsibility to preserve the natural world. I like to think my exposure to Emerson and Thoreau at an early age inspired much of my personal philosophy. I remember as a kid typing out some of their quotes to hang on my wall. Indeed, right now I am trying to take Thoreau’s admonition to ‘Simplify, simplify’ to heart, as I try to rid myself of clutter!”

Although Tom has always been based in southeastern Pennsylvania, he occasionally travels across the Northeast and into New England, making what he calls “unplanned trips north,” letting spontaneity lead him and dictate where he should stop. “It was a whim that led me to turn off that first time when I saw a sign for Lexington and Concord,” he says. “Although I enjoyed exploring the towns, I was quickly drawn out to Walden Pond to see what was there. In those days I always traveled with my fiddle, and I never liked to leave it in my car. So when I headed out to walk down to the pond, I strapped it over my shoulder. I didn’t plan to play it; I was just carrying it as I walked. But after hiking around the pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, I was inspired by the mood of the woods. I only planned to play for a few minutes, but pretty soon I had a small audience of fellow hikers, so I kept playing.”

Tom had no idea that the natural acoustics of the water and the rims of the glacial kettle-hole would lead his Celtic tunes around to the sandy public beach. When he eventually walked back with his fiddle case slung over his shoulder, he was greeted by applause from the sunbathers and swimmers. They had heard his entire performance.

The fiddler...at distance; still, the music carries.

The fiddler…at distance; still, the music carries.

 

The experience must have invigorated the fiddler, because he has returned to Walden Pond several times since. “Usually I sit on a log somewhere close to Thoreau’s cove and play for a while,” he says. Once he was in the right place at the right time to become part of a treasure hunt involving a young couple. A man had planned to leave a series of clues for his girlfriend to follow. She would eventually be led to the Thoreau house site, where she would find an engagement ring waiting for her. The clue-planters asked Tom to stick around to provide impromptu music for what was sure to be a happy moment. Surprise!

Tom still owns a copy of Walden. One of his favorite quotes from the book is a popular one: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” He also likes the advice Thoreau once gave to friend H.G.O. Blake in a letter dated March 27, 1848: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good — be good for something.”

Tom agrees that Thoreau’s writings hold relevance for us today. He says, “Our lives are filled with gadgets and a network of communication systems that keep us connected to each other at all times of day or night. I think Thoreau reminds us that sometimes we need to be alone, to find the still places, and to enjoy the quiet, the solitude.”

And when we do, we may even hear the faint strains of a single Celtic fiddle, wafting across the Walden waters, offering to us that “which no preacher preaches.”

You can hear a sample of Tom’s fiddling at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alN6slcAYuc

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