Category Archives: Environment

An Appreciation: Reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees”

Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.

By Sandy Stott

As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.

****

When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.

ITree

Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.

I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.

That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.

Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:

Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)

tree 2

When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.

I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”

I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.

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

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