Category Archives: Arts

Time’s Measure – Woodsclock

I’m in my morning sun-chair, and today, approximately a month after solstice, the sun’s strong enough to wrinkle my brow as it bears in from the southeast. Every so often it slides behind a thin pine; then, ticks later, it’s back, and, faintly, it warms. “It will be long coming,” seems the promise of more light and warmth given, “but it will be.”

It occurs to me that I have a new way of measuring time’s passage. I have a woodsclock. That “clock” is the small stand of white and pitch pines outside my southeast window. As the sun rises along its shallow, winter arc, it slides behind this irregular grouping of trees; their shadows shift bluely over the snow. Today, they began their passage pointing in my direction, fingers of shadow amid shafts of light. Then, as the sun worked across the southern sky, they shifted toward parallel. Finally, now, as late morning comes on, the shadow-digits have begun to point away from me before disappearing entirely as larger trees block the sun’s light.

Many hands of the clock

Many hands of the clock

Time, my woodsclock says, to rise and shift the focus of my day.

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Nature, The Roost

Listening Along the Way

Every so often, events, or words, fall and align themselves just so. You may be muddling along amid the little collisions of a day, making a mess of this or that, when you are taken over by a moment of grace, when, after a moment, you look out and say, “that is, or sounds, as it should be.” Part of what has kept me attending to Henry Thoreau over time is his habit of finding and recording such moments; he teaches me to be alert for the same.

And so it was that during a recent holiday drive from family to family, we slipped a disc into the car’s audio system and began to listen to a recorded essay sent my way by a teacher-friend some months before. The silvered disc had been in the car all that time, but I am slow to change habits, and I’d never adopted the one of listening to prose on tape or disc. Slow study, I know. Let’s just say that the delay in listening to Franklin Burroughs read his essay Compression Wood made it all the more pleasurable.

Summarizing Burrough’s essay – 52 minutes in reading – is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to both recommend it and think a bit about a moment early in the piece. Here’s the moment:

“It probably doesn’t make much difference whether you stay home or light out for the territories. Even Thoreau, who strove to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point, often felt, as he said, ‘a certain doubleness, by which I stand as remote from myself as from another,’ and that enabled him to see Concord as though it were a distant land from which he was writing home to a kinsman. Something about writing, or even about the committed kind of reading that is a vicarious form of writing, takes you well away from your life and makes you homesick for it.” – Franklin Burroughs, Compression Wood (first published in The American Scholar, Vol.67, No. 2, Spring, 1998)

Here, of course, is Henry Thoreau, whose spirit runs through the essay even as his name does not reappear. And there is the beauty of the phrased summary of Thoreau’s effort “to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point.” But what compelled me was a full-body feeling of assent that to write or read well, to find your way to some truth, requires moving “well away from your life,” where you can then be “homesick for it.”

Yearning, it struck me, is a fine way to be awake to your life, which vibrates then like a plucked string. Every day when we write or read or walk, we create this distance. And then, with some luck and commitment, we find our way home. This seems a good way to aim toward the new year.

Added note: I’ve provided a link to a podcast of Burroughs essay, which contains a territory expansive and wonderful. It is a perfect companion when you are going somewhere.

Podcast link: http://www.bowdoin.edu/podcasts/audio/franklin-burroughs-compression-wood.mp3

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

Solstice Lights

Today is short work. That seems appropriate to Thoreau’s 12/21/54 entry on Americans’ love of jest. But what catches my eye as I read through the entry is the paragraph before it; it shines like a mirror of my own thoughts:

We are tempted to call these the finest days of the year. Take Fair Haven Pond, for instance, a perfectly level plain of white snow, untrodden as yet by any fisherman, surrounded by snow-clad hills, dark evergreen woods, and reddish oak leaves, so pure and still. The last rays of the sun falling on the Baker Farm reflect the clear pink color. I see the feathers of a partridge strewn along on the snow a long distance, the work of some hawk perhaps, for there is no track.

“So pure and still.” Yes, and there is also the strew of feathers to remind us of life’s action, of what may fall from the sky. Still, it is time for a walk in the woods.

Those of us who walk the woods prize the sense of solitude we find there, with its expansive chance to breathe and watch without speaking. And yet – also true, I think – we rarely feel alone, in part because we become keen in our tracings of other animals whose prints, feathers and tufts of fur are everywhere. And woods-walkers also develop a heightened sensitivity for movement, especially that on the periphery of vision, where once, (in the old world, and, perhaps, in the new) predators kept track of us. All of that is part of the everyday walking world.

Here, on the other hand, is another sign of presence that is rare and random, yet common enough to make me wonder if you too find it on occasion. Yesterday on my way to local woods, I came upon a small balsam fir. Okay, not uncommon; this is, after all, Maine. But this one twinkled with strings of tiny colored lights, even though it was far enough into the woods to be unlinked with any particular house. And no extension cord ran long yards over the ground to point to such linkage. Easy enough then to conclude that the lights were battery-powered. But whose presence did this sudden holiday tree signal?

IMG_0295

The lights winked in the dark woods, growing brighter as the sun slid behind the trees and the early dusk came on. I felt a smile play across my face. Usually, I’m not wild about human announcement of presence in our common woodlands, but here at the winter solstice in diminutive form were reminders of the communal light we share; here were dots of color dressing the dark. They felt like tiny kin to the companionable yellow light cast from the window of a hut on a winter night.

Every once in a while – and that is as often as it should happen – I happen upon some little lights or other ornaments in the woods; they are kin to a quick smile from a stranger passing by in a crowd, reminder of the light side of who we are.

Best wishes to all for the solstice/holiday season.

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