Category Archives: Environment

Henry’s Children

By Corinne H. Smith

The silent Memorial Walk around Walden Pond is a tradition during The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering. We meet at the house replica near the parking lot at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. When we introduce ourselves, we also share the names of people we are dedicating the walk to. The whole group walks in memory of Henry David Thoreau and scholars Walter Harding and Bradley P. Dean. Individuals may choose also to walk for family members, friends, and mentors who have gone on before. I always dedicate my participation to two of my mentors, Thoreau scholar Edmund Schofield and singer-songwriter and environmentalist John Denver. I wear Ed’s tan corduroy hat during the walk, as he often did whenever he spent time exploring Walden Woods.

On this July 12th, about a dozen people stand in our circle. We sing a verse of Happy Birthday in Henry’s honor. Then, when the introductions come around to Jeff Hinich of Ontario, he stretches out his arms as if to embrace the group and says, “I dedicate this walk to all of Henry’s children!” We laugh. We know that Henry and his siblings never married and that no direct descendants of their family exist. And yet: isn’t Jeff right? Aren’t we all Henry’s children? Didn’t he father good books and essays and opinions that in turn brought together followers like us?

I think on this satisfying idea as we walk single file across the road and down to the level of the pond. We edge past a handful of long-distance swimmers preparing to work on their pond-laps. A few are already in the water. Now we turn left in order to round the pond clockwise. As the first one in the line, I often get to see a few things the others don’t. Chipmunks squeak and scurry in front of me, almost underfoot. Robins are in abundance today, too. I play a game of tag with one bird for more than ten yards. It bobs ahead of me, stops to let me catch up, then bobs ahead some more. Finally it realizes that I am not going to stray from the path that we’ve both been using. It flies up into a small tree and watches our group pass from this vantage point. I try not to laugh out loud.

Otherwise, it’s a pretty calm scene at Walden Pond. Some fishermen quietly cast lines from boats or from the shore. Even the train tracks lie idle. The MBTA continues to make improvements and repairs on this section and has suspended weekend service for most of the rest of 2014. So we wait for the train that doesn’t come, then continue on to the site where Henry’s house once stood. Here we fan out and take our time, thinking about Henry and our loved ones, too. Some take a few seconds to stand in his doorway and look down to the cove.

For most of the fourteen Memorial Walks that I’ve been on, I’ve seen white Indian pipes growing in select spots around the cairn and outside of the house markers. This time, there are none. I tiptoe to all of the places where I’ve seen them in the past, and no white shoots are beginning to lift the leaf litter. The weather conditions must have been different this year. Maybe the heat or moisture levels haven’t been right. Maybe the unique curved heads will pop up later in the season, when they can amaze other visitors. Or maybe they were quite early, and I missed them. I feel disappointment at their absence.

What I notice instead is all of the small pine trees rising here. Many aren’t even as big as the one Charlie Brown places a single red ornament on each Christmas. One is certainly less than four inches tall. Yes, I’ve seen seedlings before. But either there are more of them today, or I’m somehow extra aware of them now. Then it dawns on me. These little guys are Henry’s children, too! He once planted hundreds of white pines in this area. Granted, we have no easy way of proving that these specific saplings came from his specific plantings. But in the grand and symbolic scheme of the Walden Woods ecosystem, we can call them descendants. More of Henry’s children. And at this thought, I smile again.

Faith in a Seedling

Faith in a Seedling

We saunter back to the parking lot. Now, families loaded down with beach paraphernalia hurry toward us, eager to stake out some sand and sun for the rest of the day. Some of them may be Henry’s children, too: if not now, then perhaps at some future moment. How many children does Henry David Thoreau have? It’s an innocent enough question that’s hard to answer. But on this particular morning, and only at Walden Pond, I count at least a dozen people and hundreds of seedling pines. Many more are sure to surface in the years to come.

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

Uplands of Time

It’s been nearly a year since I stepped out the door, turned left at the driveway’s end and walked off into these New Hampshire hills. But even as the town road bears right uphill and I go straight along this spur’s tire-flattened gravel, the images arrive: in them I (or we) are setting out, often with the Oregon Ridge in mind. It could be blueberries on the ledges; it could be relief from the heat; it could be hope of another moose antler; it could be solitude. Any of these pretexts will do.

Fifty years seems a long stretch, unless, as I have, you have been reading a book set in geological time; then, fifty years seems a mere intake of breath, a shallow one at that. I have a mind habituated to the ephemeral, the thought equivalent of a day moth, whose 24-hour life cycle seems hurried, but usual. But on this return to the ridges I first walked 55 years ago, I keep making a conscious effort to see the slowest motion of long time and its events. The tilted planes of rock remind of a time when they were not aslant. And the pluton of Cardigan itself, a resistant dome of weathered rock, reminds of all the companion rock and soil washed away over millennia to reveal this mountain.

On my way up the aptly named Skyland Ridge, I drop into a small drainage, where a clear brook burbles its little July song. The climb up the bank on the east side is reach-out-and-touch-the-ground-before-your-face sharp, and, as a I look back down some 50 nearly sheer feet to the brook, I take in the cutting it has done… is doing, even as I watch its little summer flow, taking down this mountain a few molecules at a time.

Usually the shift to this sort of deep time meditation is too great a leap, and I return soon to looking at leaves, musing about mosses and listening to birds sing their territories. The nearby drumming of a pileated woodpecker reminds of time’s more immediate beat, as do the fist-sized holes in a trailside tree. But on this day a recurring perception keeps nudging me back to longer spans of time, and, after a while, I realize that I am also looking at changes in the land over the 55 years. In particular, I keep seeing the slow crawl of trees as they recolonize and reclaim the bare rock.

Cardigan’s brother peak is named, arrestingly, Firescrew. As a boy, I simply noted that it topped out just above 3000 feet and hurried toward it summit, repeatedly. Later, I began to wonder about its odd name, and I found it derived from a massive forest fire in 1855; its heat was so intense that it burned with a swirl (or screw) of flame and smoke visible for many miles. Then the charred, sterile soil washed off both mountains, leaving them as domes of rock, with views worthy of their higher northern neighbors, the White Mountains.

Firescrew's Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

Firescrew’s Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

As a boy I reveled in the Cardigan’s exposed mountain feel; it played much bigger than its 3100 feet; so too did Firescrew. The absence of trees and brush created this feel; it was all elemental rock pressed up into the sky. Over these decades, soil and seeds have blown into creases in the stone, and generations of grasses have lived and died. Gradually enough soil has accumulated to host bushes, in spots the much-loved blueberry. And on: more growth, more decay, deeper or taller brush, with trees following. It takes only a little imaginative effort to see both peaks reforested some hundreds of years in the future.

And with this little effort and this day’s walking, the door to the room of deep time opens. In this room the rocks live and move; we are kindred, I think, as I sit here looking out.

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

Raptors and Riparians

by Ashton Nichols

In addition to songbirds, our Creekside is also a realm of raptors; that is to say, it is busy with that expansive group of avian species that include the hawks, and the eagles, and the owls. “Raptor” derives from a Latin word rapere, which means–as you might imagine–to seize forcefully. This morning it was just two red-tailed hawks circling high above the farm fields near us, squawking a call that is known to all of those who remember the television show Northern Exposure: “Awwkkee, aawwkkee!” they cry, as gangs of crows circle around them in small flocks, working hard to chase them away. But the red-tailed hawks often win. Today it seems like a draw, as the crows disperse and scatter into the tall trees off toward the western horizon, and the red-tails sail away into the distance in the direction of North Mountain. With this dramatic encounter of hawks and crows, I thought I was done with my bird-watching for the day, but I was not very prophetic on this blue-skied dawn.

Red-tail: Unharried on High. photo by Brocken

Red-tail: Unharried on High.
photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redtail_hawk#mediaviewer/File:Red-tailed_hawk_in_flight.jpg

Hawks like these aggressive hunters are here almost every day. Usually it is red-tails like this pair, but sometimes it is Cooper’s hawks or sharp-shins, kestrels (not really much larger than large songbirds) or broad-wings. These hawks in their kettles all gather here because the hunting is so good: field mice and moles, voles and even big rats, all drawn by the hundreds of acres of seeded farm-fields around us, by the stacks of grain and corn in the barns, and by the smaller birds that hawks are also willing to eat. I have seen a peregrine falcon take a sparrow right out of the sky in front of me, in a flash of feathers that looked like an explosion of bird-life.

There are also cats on the farm here, as you might well expect: barn cats in their low dozens: tigers and tortoise-shells, an orange-and-white that is one of my favorites, and even a jet black bit of bad luck, but I like her a lot. Yet even all of these felines cannot keep the microtis (the word that means “small-eared” when it refers to little furry mammals) that surround us at bay. There cannot be too many cats for the hawks; there cannot be too many cats for the rats. Here at Creekside we witness the delicate balance of nature: hawks and cats, mice and rats, and even thousands upon thousands of spring-peeper frogs, but more about them and their role anon.

We also have bald eagles at Creekside this spring and early summer, at least two often-seen juvenile birds that we have been watching closely for almost six months now. We have watched them as they have grown and matured, as they soar from one wide farm-field to the other, and then as they sail away down toward the wide-open creek bed, and especially as they change their wide-winged plumage from brown-and-white splotches to the beautifully characteristic white head and tail. Bald eagles are born with almost as many white feathers as brown ones scattered throughout their wide body and wings and then, as they grow, the brown number increases, and the white one shrinks to just their heads and tails. In the male, as all good Americans know, this white ends up only covering the head and the sparkling white tail. The adult female, however, unlike most other bird species, looks almost exactly like the adult male, but she is a little bit larger all over: her wingspan is wider, she weighs a bit more, her beautifully curved bill is a bit longer, and so are the sharp rear talons on her wildly lizard-looking legs.

Photo by Lloyd MacKenzie

Photo by Lloyd MacKenzie

Several years ago, there was a registered bald eagle’s nest about five miles to the northwest of us along our same winding creek. A registered nest has watchers from the Audubon Society, and other official birding groups, who regularly report on the condition of the nest, the number of eagle’s eggs, and just how the young develop as they hatch and then mature. But these two juveniles that we have been watching this year are clearly from much closer by; the nest from which they fledged must be just down the hill from us or along the wide ox-bow that winds across and along the creek to our immediate west. These two birds fly close enough to us sometimes so that we can see their curved beaks and reptilian talons. They roost in tall pine trees nearby and the locust trees just behind the house, and then they swoop down and soar across the nearby fields and creek in search of prey. Once, at least once, we saw one of these magnificent birds with that very same prey in its talons, captured and spiked right through with razor sharp claws, a small rodent or other immature mammal, dead now and soaring off across the wide fields toward the mountain ridge above us, another kill, another capture, another protein feast for this fine national bird that we call America’s.

Finally, our owls are the last group of raptors here with us at Creekside. We have never seen one, at least we have not seen one yet, but we often hear them in numbers at night, calling from deep down in the Conodoguinet creek bed. Most often it is the barred owl, with its characteristic, “Who cooks for you all; who cooks for you?” and then sometimes, when we get lucky, we hear the noble great horned owl, with a more stately and solemn, “Whooo, whooo, whoo, whoo! Whoo, whoo, whoo, whooo!”

Often Heard, Seldom Seen - the Spring Peeper. Photo by Zach Welty

Often Heard, Seldom Seen – the Spring Peeper.
Photo by Zach Welty

Some nights these owl calls even drown out the chorus of spring peeper frogs, or these two choruses–avian and reptilian–vie for supremacy, first the frogs taking over, “Kee, ke, ke, kee, keek–Kee, kee, ke, kee,” and then the owls, especially that booming great horned sound, “Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo; whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo!” We drift off to sleep with these sounds in our heads: the huge owls off in the distance and then these tiny frogs, thousands of them not much bigger than the size of your thumbnail–just two hundred to three hundred yards away–peeping loudly: “peeeep, peeep, peep-peep, peeeep,” and we are lulled into unconsciousness by these booming repeated raptor calls followed by these delicate riparian replies.

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Filed under Environment, General, Nature, The Roost