Category Archives: Environment

Winter patience in the not-so-great indoors

By Peter Brace

On the morning of the second “big” sno’easter of Winter 2016/2017 to hit Nantucket, with a forecast of 60 mph gusts and five to eight inches of snow, I was sitting at the edge of my bed re-bandaging a wound on my left foot.

Doxie 0056

Matt and Peter Brace skiing down Pine Mountain, Maine, during a back country adventure. (Circa 1979)

A podiatrist prescribed the daily bandaging procedure and forbade me from walking other than for daily needs for two weeks, an eternal Hell for my dog, Kismet, and me.

Normally, I’d be lacing up my hiking boots to go walk two or three miles; a year-round, circadian ritual I live for. And, I love winter! In fact, only spring barely approaches the nirvana of winter in my mind.

On Nantucket during the winter, the island is empty of visitors. With more than 60 percent of our 30,000 acres protected from development, 45 percent of it conserved as open space, and no dog harassing middle mammals, including raccoons, coyotes, skunks and porcupines, Nantucket is an ideal place to explore by shanks mare.

Having missed almost all of January to a debilitating cold and, recently getting back out into my hiking routine, to then be benched again was dispiriting given my new line of work.

In 2015, I’d launched a guided natural history hiking service on the island. After writing about the natural world on Nantucket for most of my career, guiding hikes around the island just sort of felt right.

My parents were my guides to the outdoors, but mostly my father.

I grew up in Concord, MA, where conservation land exists in abundant acreage relatively on par with Nantucket’s. With the parents divorced by the time I was 10, Pop didn’t slacken into the single dad who squandered father-time with his kids at malls, movies, the zoo or museums. Instead, we explored every inch of Concord open to hiking, cross-country skiing, orienteering, skating and swimming.

Our Thoreauvian adventures included but weren’t limited to the Hapgood Woods, the Walden Pond woods, the Estabrook Woods, the woods between there and Middlesex School, the Wright Woods, the Seton Woods, the Great Meadows and the Upper Spencer Brook Valley, 18 acres of which land my grandmother Elise Huggins donated to the Concord Conservation. I know he felt every second of exploring the outdoors with his children were teachable moments and that he reveled in his new role albeit forced as it was.

Now, through my business, Nantucket Walkabout, I think I’ve gotten inside Pop’s Thoreau psyche and learned some of the boundless pleasures of teaching adults and children as I guide them around the island.

A few months before his passing on Aug. 21, 2014, I saw my dad using a brand new purple Swiss Army pocketknife, cursing while explaining that he’d recently lost his original maroon one. A few days after his death, I found that knife under the cushions of his couch by the wood stove where he took his naps. Upon inspection, I realized that this was the knife he’d had most of my life because the main blade’s tip was rounded over and the blade itself well worn from decades of use and sharpening.

He had countless uses for it on our hikes together hut to hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on Mt. Katadin and the mountains in Acadia National Park in Maine. I imagined it’d been a talisman for him, a direct link to his more active days, cherished and yet still handy.

So, here I was using my father’s pocketknife — maybe hoping for a little trail magic — to diligently keep to my bandaging schedule so I could finally get out walking again to get in shape for my season, my winter patience now worn thinner than his old blade.

Editor’s note: Peter Brace is a prize-winning journalist and environmental writer and the author of  “Walking Nantucket: A Walker’s Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot,”  and  “Nantucket: A Natural History.”

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Base Camp: White Pond

“…if not the most beautiful, of all our lakes, the gem of the woods, is White Pond…” Thoreau, Walden

The big news on White Pond is the snow.

It’s falling about three inches an hour, and the folks in our immediate neighborhood, those who live at the end of White Avenue, are out in the street shoveling. The Town’s plow stops just short of our cluster of houses. In the best of weather, a truck with a plow could not make it up the narrow, steep hill and with the blizzard, it’s hard to maneuver a snow blower on the icy road, so we hand shovel.

We live in houses that were originally built as hunting and fishing cabins during 1925 – 1930. Except for being winterized, the cabins remain mostly unchanged. If you did not know better, you might think you had stumbled upon a base camp for an ice fishing expedition. wa

On our side of the pond, the houses are more like wooden tents with furnaces.

These houses are small, about 600 square feet or less, but don’t have the spit and polish or careful design of a modern Tiny House.

In many respects, we live the way people camped pre-World War II. Our houses were built during Prohibition!

Children share bedrooms; no one has a family room or more than one bathroom, and blessedly, there’s no central air.

It’s not Walden Pond, but it is the next best thing.

“White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors …” Thoreau, Walden

While the snow is blowing sideways and sticking to our cheeks, we talk about the pond: the toxic green algae that returned in September; the drop in water level; and the dead fawn that was discovered last week floating near the cove.

Had the fawn been poisoned? Did it get caught on a piece of floating ice? Was it shot? No one knows.

Talk of the pond gets us through the task at hand, making us each feel less like we are shouldering an oar. The snow keeps falling, and we’ll be out on the street again in a couple of hours, making another pass with our shovels.

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A Town Meeting – Seeding February

“The history of a woodlot is often, if not commonly, here a history of cross-purposes, of steady and consistent endeavor on the part of Nature, of interference and blundering with a glimmering of intelligence at the eleventh hour on the part of the proprietor.” Thoreau, Faith in a Seed.

While I read a morning poem, the snow wanes. A few tiny flakes slant still in from the north; spaced even father apart, a few fat flakes fall like random punctuation undecided about the day’s line – here and here; that will do. A flurry at the feeder makes me look over, reminds me to fill its sleeve before turning out to work.

Last evening, I went to a meeting of fellow citizens on two of our town’s commissions. Our charge was to look over a 30-year mistake involving two small parcels of a subdivision that had been set aside for conservation or recreation land and somehow never conveyed to the town as was intended. The recreation lot, suitable only for “passive recreation,” which is an oxymoron of sorts and to most of us means watching trees grow, had the added question of a right-of-way. That drive could only pass through in the shape of a question mark. More possible punctuation.

Tucked behind the houses and still-to-be-built lots was the prize. Down its few-acre center runs Great Gully Brook, and given our underlying sand-plain, this deep cut also features fragile banks. Not far to the south of the site, the brook runs into a broad, mud-rich bay, and also nearby are a couple of wildlife corridors. Smelt are rumored to run in the stream, and, reportedly, turkeys have become its bully-birds. So, keeping the brook’s gully intact is important for the bay, which needs no more silt, and for the fish who would swim and spawn there. The birds and quadrupeds who use it as passage also recommend the gully.

All of this was rich fodder for a little dreaming as the meeting-clock ticked forward. Each night the long darkness comes first to this gully, and through it pass any number of night wanderers; through it too pass the always-waters of the brook, on their way to the bay.

Melt-detail from nearby

Melt-detail from nearby

The current residents, who like their gully neighbor and want it protected, were at the meeting in numbers. They offered sightings of wildlife and the added life of having such a neighbor. The question-mark right-of-way, they said, was in such a shape because it needed to skirt the gully at enough distance to preserve its banks. They warned of disturbance, of loosing the banks and sending them to choke the bay.

Our commission, which will end up holding title or rights to the gully and so will become its overseer, listened to these stories carefully. We are already maxed out with such seeing over. But the right thing is what must be done – it’s part of being part of a town, of looking out for and after where we live. It is, we hope, the eleventh-hour “glimmering of intelligence” that joins us to our land. It helped to imagine Great Gully’s water running in the night and all who follow it to and from the sea. Even as we talked and listened that life was pulsing along the gully.

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