Category Archives: Arts

Aroma After Dark

Corinne H. Smith

“The lilac is beginning to open to-day.” ~ Thoreau’s Journal, April 24, 1854

It was going on 9 p.m., and I was in the mood for a candy bar. Alas, my cupboards were bare. Fortunately for me in times like these, I live just one block behind a strip mall anchored by a large grocery store. (When the garbage trucks come in the middle of the night to empty the metal dumpsters, this proximity doesn’t seem to be quite as wonderful and convenient as it is during daylight hours, however.) So I put on my shoes and jacket and went out into the night. It was a chilly but nice walk of a hundred or more steps along the macadam on my side of the street. It was quiet, too. No one else was out and about. Nice.

By contrast, the store was as startlingly bright and blazing as usual, although business was winding down toward closing time. I searched the checkout aisles for my favorite grab-n-go chocolate, then circled around to the only clerk still standing. He looked tired and bored. “I don’t have a card. And I don’t need a bag,” I told him. In less than a minute, I was back out on the sidewalk and heading toward the house, equipped with my treasure. I would wait to slice open the wrapper when I reached the kitchen.

Back here away from the parking lot, only corner intersections have streetlights. So I kept my eyes on the wide dark strip I recognized as macadam, to make sure of solid footing. Next to me were the various shades of gray representing my neighbor’s evergreens, lawn, and sundry bushes. I was almost next to his house when I was practically knocked over by an aroma. “Whoa.” I stopped and backed up a few steps. The lilac bush! I had forgotten that John had a nice purple lilac bush planted here. And who would have thought that the buds would be opening now? But of course they would. It’s the right time of the season, silly. I grabbed a thin branch and put its petalled tip to my nose. OMG. This is one of my favorite fragrances, ever. I inhaled it a few times and basked in the marvel, then reluctantly let the branch spring back to its brothers. My stomach was growling, and I needed to get home.

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Lilacs always surprise me. By the time they burst forth, we’ve already seen the traditional colors of suburban Spring: yellow daffodils and forsythia, blue hyacinths and crocuses, pink flowering and Japanese cherries, and lots of other vivid flowers and trees. Many have lost their petals and are in leaf by now. And just when we’re getting used to living in a green world again, the lilacs show up. And boy, do they pack a punch! Maybe the others serve as mere appetizers, and the lilacs are the main event. This is not a bad thing, to my mind.

As much as I like lilacs, I have never attended a lilac festival. I know that the two big ones are in Rochester, New York (May 6-15) and on Mackinac Island, Michigan (June 3-12). But now that I think of it, I remember seeing a fair number of lilac bushes in various yards along the route of my usual mile-long neighborhood walk. I haven’t sauntered out there in a while. It’s time to go out again on a regular basis. You can be sure that I’ll take time to sample the fragrances of each and every bush. And this time, I won’t wait until the cover of darkness to do it.

“The lilac is scented at every house.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 22, 1853

We’re on our way to this reality, Henry.

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The Season for Everything

This is the season for everything…There is time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts, and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his. Thoreau, Journal, 4/24/59

Or try this one: by the time Geoff and I reach the south end of Scrag Island, we’ve stopped twice to warm our hands. The buoys say the water’s reading around 42 degrees, and, even with the sun square on our hands, that 42 trumps whatever the sun’s coaxed into the air. But the green water shines, and we’ve just watched an osprey brings strands of grass to its nestbound mate, perhaps a final lining for anticipated ospreylets. Both birds have keened at our nearness, and we have paddled farther off their island’s shore.

Island, water, sky

Island, water, sky

Our next aim, once we warm hands, is the eagle’s nest on Little Iron Island, a drama-site during 2014, with two eaglets compressing all the outrage of adolescence into a month before they finally fledged. One day we watched tantrum sticks fly from the nest, as an eaglet showed his displeasure…at what we didn’t know. The parent eagles, who shlepped out and back repeatedly with food, looked exhausted by July. For them it seemed the season for one thing only. Constant hunger, no sleep, and all these squalling demands – when will they fly, their posture seemed to say. And then, one day they did.

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Perhaps 2014 put the parents off on this egg-to-eaglet thing, but whatever the reason, the nest was vacant in 2015. What about now, we wonder.

We float the incoming tide slowly by the iron-streaked islet; the nest is empty, even as it looks solid, looks like a house I would buy.

Well, on to the next of everything, and there it is, the up and down flight of the season’s first kingfisher as it hurls itself forward. With its outsized head and long tine of beak, it seems to need extra speed just to stay airborne; or perhaps it’s simply necessary speed in pursuit of everything.

For Henry Thoreau, Ripple Lake was Goose Pond, neighbor water to Walden, and for us it’s the cold water of Middle Bay. Everywhere, though, it’s time to watch the ripples.

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Henry in the Hills

“On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning.” Thoreau – from an early draft of Walden

Recent research, on page and on foot, has taken me to some of Henry Thoreau’s upland excursions, the ones where he traveled a good deal beyond Concord rather than within. In particular, I’ve been reading and imagining about his two journeys into the White Mountains and up Mount Washington.

Henry Thoreau first went to the White Mountains in 1839, beginning his two-week trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, thereby seeding the narrative of his first book. One might suspect that Thoreau’s climb of northeastern high point, Mount Washington would show as a high point in his notes, but it passes in a single clipped sentence. The meandering rivers get their due, as they do also in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But Thoreau’s overland mountain tour in 1858 is, in his journal, a different story; its chronicle covers more than 60 pages, and it is rich with detail.

In his dates and in his commentary, Thoreau catches nicely the early history of climbing on our White Mountains. In 1839, Thoreau and his brother weren’t first on the uplands, but they were part of the vanguard of visitors drawn to its transcendent landscape. Twenty-one years later, Thoreau and his companion Edward Hoar arrived at the height of the pre-Civil War tourist boom: now there were two hotels on top of Washington, and, though Henry, per usual, relied on his own two feet, scores of tourists now rode their way up prominent, popular mountains on bridle paths.

White Mtn uplands, where sky and land come close

White Mtn uplands, where sky and land come close

As with many activities that drew throngs, Thoreau later had something to say about mountaintop buildings: “I think that the top of Mt. Washington should not be private property; it should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence’s sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to.” 1/3/61

But what catches my modern eye is his July 8th description of leaving Mount Washington’s summit in the fog, bound for Tuckerman Ravine:

About 8:15 A.M., being still in dense fog, restarted direct for Tuckerman Ravine, I having taken the bearing of it before the fog, but Spaulding [a summit hotelier] also went some ten rods with us and pointed toward the head of the ravine, which was about S 15 degrees W. Hoar tried to hire Page to go with us, carrying part of our baggage, — as he had already brought it up from the shanty [along the carriage road where they spent the prior night] — and he professed to be acquainted with the mountain; but his brother, who lived at the summit, warned him not to go, lest he should not be able to find his way back again, and he declined. The landlords were rather anxious about us. I looked at my compass every four or five rods and the walked toward some rock in our course, but frequently after taking three or four steps, though the fog was no more dense, I would lose the rock I steered for. The fog was very bewildering. You would think that the rock you steered for was some large boulder twenty rods off, or perchance it looked like the bow of a distant spur, but a dozen steps would take you to it, and it would suddenly have sunk into the ground. I discovered this illusion. I said to my companions, “You see that boulder of peculiar form, slanting over another. Well, that is in our course. How large do you think it is, and how far?” To my surprise, one answered three rods, but the other said nine. I guessed four, and we all thought it about eight feet high. We could not see beyond it, and it looked like the highest part of a ridge before us. At the end of twenty-one paces, or three and a half rods, I stepped upon it, — less than two feet high — and I could not have distinguished it from the hundred similar ones around it, if I had not kept my eye on it all the while.  Journal

Thoreau, who was a quick study, then offered comment that reads as kin to the sort of advice a reader can find in a modern guidebook about hiking, or in the lesson-drawing comments of mountain accident analyses.

It is unwise,” he writes, “for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. An ordinary rock in a fog, being in the apparent horizon, is exaggerated to, perhaps, at least ten times its size and stance. You will think you have gone further than you have to get to it.  Journal

There is, in Thoreau’s description, the hint of menace that fog and unsightedness can carry on an exposed mountain. You can quickly lose your way, become wrapped in illusion, which carries you farther afield; all the while the very rocks on which you walk seem to change size, shift shapes, reminding you also that nothing grows up here, that life’s supports are far below, and that you must go there to live on.

Half menace, half promise

Half menace, half promise

Given good facility with a compass, measures of distance and sound footing courtesy of his work as a surveyor and his long walkings, Thoreau leads the way just there; he and Hoar and companion go down unerringly to Tuckerman Ravine. Already his foot habits are making him familiar with the land. But Thoreau also seems aware that they have reached an edge, a place where accident and trouble are close by, a place visited often by modern search and rescue and its narratives of loss. These mountains, he sees, even in early July, can be a terra of trouble.

Prescient, as ever.

Reader’s Note: My research has also led me J. Parker Huber’s delightful 1999 compilation, Elevating Ourselves, Thoreau on Mountains.

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