Category Archives: Environment

One Morning in Maine – a Citizen Goes to a Town Clean-up, where Henry Appears.

This day, April 29th, needs — as they all do — a bit of context. It is a Saturday, and the earth — its day and its dilemmas — has been much in the news. Back in late winter at a meeting of Brunswick Democrats, someone proposed a trash clean-up as one useful way to counter the spirit of disregard many see as loose in our world. Given a little Saturday sloth, I don’t feel like going out to meet this possibility on this day, but I do.

We — my assigned partner Nick, a retired law professor, and I — join ten Democrats and pick up our two capacious plastic bags at the gazebo on the Common. We take them to the town center where Pleasant Street joins Maine, where we’ll begin picking up scattered trash. Nick is wearing the pullover orange vest that identifies us as something other than pedestrians. We are quasi-official.

I am on the upside of 60; Nick is probably 10 years my elder, and we measure our pace to make this walk companionable. Today offers a first burst of warmth-going-to-heat, a sudden spring flower. But as we begin, it is the constant bending that gets our attention. “We should have picker-uppers,” Nick says. That’s true, I think, but when you do such work on rare occasion, you don’t know more than to show up and get your bag. We settle into a pick-and-talk-and-pick routine. Stooped often, we probably appear to be talking to the ground.

In town, the trash clusters wherever pause happens — stop signs, crossings, waiting areas. People molt constantly, it seems. Our “feathers” are everywhere:

Vodka seems the favored nip. Its little plastic bottles lie crumpled, the effect, perhaps, of someone trying to suck the last drop out.

Who cut the tiny cable once connected to an Apple device’s recharger?

Who is missing one earplug?

Near the town library’s entrance, we comb bits of paper and plastic from the thick sand of a melted plough-drift. The little garden looks like a once-green land going to desert. It will need heavy raking to free its ground-cover. Not long ago, the snow must have been piled five feet deep.

While we are at our work, “thousands march on the White House” to protest climate change. Our conversation turns to redemptive behavior. Nick tells me a story from his classroom. They are studying ethics, truth and law, and he has posed this question from the Nazi era: You are part of a household sheltering people and the authorities burst in. “Are there any Jews here?” they demand. He then gives a favorite answer from his years in the classroom: “If,” a student answers after some pause, “you mean by that, are there any people here who deserve to die, then no, there are no Jews here.”

“I stopped the class,” Nick says. “Did you hear that answer?” I asked.

Then there is the other side. “How would a group of Thoreaus do at forming a society?” he wanted to know on an exam. “What’s a thoreau?” one student asked.

We talk back and forth about what “a thoreau” is, and I offer one of my exam questions: Using Thoreau’s definition of a good school in Walden, examine and assess your own schooling. Thoreau knew that all true learning, finally, is personal.

We approach the franken-building of the local UU Church, which — it turns out when you walk in — composes a calm, light-filled interior. How the odd, angle-and-strut-rich exterior becomes a coherent, reflective space inside is one of those little wonders of architectural vision. “That’s my church,” Nick says. Now I know where I’ve seen him before.

Our way back to the Common takes us down Everett Sreet. Despite having owned a house in Brunswick for 14 years, and despite the street’s central location, this is my first trip down Everett. Well-kept, modest houses and apartments with little yards and tiny flower gardens line the street; it is a little urban gem wedged into town. Everett is also largely litter free; no one, it seems, loiters on Everett, flicking away ones and twos of the over 500 cigarette butts we have collected. A young man attached to a blue-tooth device walks by, nods, and, noting our bags, bends and picks up two scraps of paper.

At the end of Everett, Nick says, “I’m glad to be at the end of our route.” It’s been nearly two bending hours. I’m glad too, even as some of the habit that makes scut-work possible has already taken over.

We walk back to the Common, where the noon line at the burrito truck is a dozen deep. I wonder what they’ll do with their wrappers.

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Filed under Environment, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

Interview with a pilgrim

by Natasha Shabat

For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.

Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.

Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.

“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.

In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.

“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”

When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.

Punit photo 1

“Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book.”

Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”

As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”

Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”

Punit photo 2

“Think of civilizations on a scale of time.”

After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)

Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.

Punit photo 3

“I really like the site of his cabin.”

“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . .  he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.

“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”

I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.

You can find my video interview with Punit here.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Walden

Each Town Should Have a Park: Wandering Public Lands Far and Near

By Scott Berkley

 “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.”  — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859

On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.

When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.

This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.

On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.  Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.
Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.

The author out running in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Ryan Koski-Vacirca.

Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.

Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial