Category Archives: Arts

Orchid Eyes

“The lady’s slipper in the pitch pine woodside near J. Hosmer’s Desert, probably about the 27th.” 5/30/56, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner.

I’m on my way home when I see the season’s first orchid. It’s a day or so before it reaches the showy-phase with its white-pink slippers tipped just so, but the two splayed, glossy leaves and the rising neck, with its bud shy seeming, are enough; almost enough to make me camp here and wait for their flower. Almost.

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Instead, I’ll return tomorrow, and, as I go south into the deeper woods and reach the pitch pine plain at their core, I’ll get orchid eyes, the eye-set that lets me see these rare plants everywhere. The forest floor is eruptive green at this time of year, and all those greens are fresh and appealing. And its daubs of white, wildflowers draw the eye too, but I await especially the lady slippers, which people the woods like…people.

Some rise in clusters, and in years past in each of my circuits of Concord’s Estabrook Woods, I knew where to look for these tiny towns or tribes. One in particular grows near the two-mile marker, a waist-high granite post as you walk south along the Old Carlisle Road. From there it’s two miles to our revolution’s “rude bridge that arched the flood,” though during most springs, it has both feet in the flood – no dry-shod revolutionaries these days. Each spring somewhere between ten and twenty slippers rise on the sunny bank to the left of the post.

Then, a while farther along, at the overlook for Stump Pond, if you crane your neck to peer down the slope leading to the water, there are always a few solitary slippers. The same is true along the esker that runs along the pond’s north flank. Here are the Thoreaus of the species, the slippers who like a little distance from their neighbors.

When the flower shows, inclined just as someone might hold a slipper for a lady’s foot, our native orchid is easy to spot, insistent really. Whose foot? As often happens, we look back to the Greeks and into the mists of myth for answer: the genus name Cypripedium fuses Cypris and pedilion; this “sandal” awaits Aphrodite…as do many of us.

But for these few days before the blossom, it takes orchid eyes to find them amid all the other look-at-me greenery. And It is a little like putting on special lenses: once they are in place, orchid plant after orchid plant appears.

Soon it’s clear, these pitch-pine woods could shoe all the Aphrodites and Cinderellas in the world.

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Green Rider

These days, when a soft west or southwest wind blows and it is truly warm, and an outside coat is oppressive, — these bring out the butterflies and the frogs, and the marsh hawks, which prey upon the last. Just so simple is every year.” Thoreau, Journal, 4/5/54

Back from today’s run, I set to the dull-but-necessary stretching, and, while bent variously, I see motion where there’s usually none. It is tiny motion, to be sure, but on vision’s periphery, where the laces of my shoe cross, binding me in, something’s stirring. “Ah,” says my hoppy mind, glad for any distraction from the stasis of stretch-and-hold.

The motion bunches, then reaches and a new season begins – I have spring’s first green rider, who must have hitched this ride somewhere back in the woods. And, given that my rider’s on my shoe and lime-colored, not long ago it must have been grazing on a blade of trailside grass. But now, on this charcoal-colored expanse, it is obvious, a magnet for whatever eye is aloft.

Shoe with rider

Shoe with rider

Later in the season, this little guy’s relatives will be well over an inch long, but this one’s well under the measure of what may be his name. Inchworm? I click into the wires of research.

More names: “measuring worms, spanworms, loopers,” that’s reason enough for research. Then there’s motion’s method: “An inchworm moves by drawing its hind end forward while holding on with the front legs, then advancing its front section while holding on with the prolegs.” Prolegs? Do I have any of those? Sounds like a trademark. I look at my one-after-the-other feet. My green rider appears to be waving as he searches for a way down off the raised lace of mid-shoe.

Reaching, waving…there must be food out there somewhere; got to keep at it. By now – you probably agree – I have overstretched.

So it’s time for the green-rider-ritual: I stand and walk carefully over to the nearest weed, a dandelion this time, and I pluck a leaf, which I then place in the path of my rider. He reaches out, touches the leaf’s edge, but I am vibrating a bit, and, suspicious of the shaky world, he pulls back, heads off 90-degrees away. I shift the leaf to his path again. What an odd world where a leaf recurs in each direction? Well, he must think, nothing to do but get on board, and he loops up and on.

Now, following reason’s path, I go to the grass at lawn’s border and settle the rider’s leaf in it. A couple of loops take him off-ship, into a new world. I go back to stretching, back the linear track of today.

But now, as I coax flex into my muscles, I’m thinking about metamorphosis: if all goes as it should for the little green rider, some days in the future, he’ll give up looping, inching along and fly away. He is a moth-in-the-making.

And, if all goes well for me, I, a runner-in-the-making, will return to the trails tomorrow for the closest motion to flight I know.

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Setting Out

Late in May, 1849, Henry Thoreau published his first book. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, met little public enthusiasm, and because Thoreau had taken on some debt to get his book out, in the end he owed money. The best he seemed able to realize from the venture was his famous “library” joke, wherein he boasted to owning over 1000 books, 700 of which he had written himself. Not a promising start for a most famous writer.

Still, May is a month for fliers – for seeing them, and for taking them – and I’ve returned to the rivers and thickets of A Week as an appreciation for flight, for the setting out that is all enterprise – on water, on air. Pick your liquid. But, once you have, set forth on it.

Thoreau opens A Week with a short chapter of long sentences about the Concord River, and he is intent on epic associations before setting out on his own. He describes his local river as,

…a huge volume of matter, ceaselessly rolling through the plains and valleys…making haste from the high places of earth to its ancient reservoir. The murmurs of many a famous river on the other side of the globe reach even to us here,…many a poet’s stream floating the helms and shields of heroes…The Xanthus or Scamander is not a mere dry channel and bed of a mountain torrent, but fed by the ever-flowing springs of fame;…

Ah, to Troy even. All this before we cast off with Thoreau and his brother John, who set out on Saturday, the next chapter.

At length, on Saturday, the last day of August, 1839, we two, brothers, and natives of Concord, weighed anchor in this river port; for Concord too, lies under the sun, a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men;…

It’s near noon, and now’s the time. I shuck off my work, putting aside my keyboard. And…avert your eyes…I shuck off my clothes too…in favor of others less long-sleeved and leg-sheathed. Then I tie my feet into trail shoes, and I’m off.

The way

The way

When you run, however slowly, the land too is liquid. And, after the obligatory whinging from everything that’s been sitting all morning, I begin to flow along the spring-soft trail, and on into the woods. I am, along this wave-wrinkled land, a foot-pilot, steering first between those two pines, then over the crest of a rise.

What’s on the other side? Let’s go see.

Along a long way

Along a long way

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