Category Archives: Environment

Thoreau’s Walden house, Pennsylvania style

By Corinne H. Smith

“I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. … I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

This week, I walked down a paved path and caught a glimpse of the Thoreau house perched quaintly beneath a stand of tall trees. This structure had been built to Henry’s specifications, 10 ft. by 15 ft. It even had its own pond, just two dozen steps away from the front door. But this was not Walden, and this was not Concord. This house sits on the property of Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania, less than 20 miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia.

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Thoreau’s influence found in the Pennsylvania woods.

Four years ago here, I wrote about my visit to the Penn State Altoona campus in western Pennsylvania. Students there had built a Walden house replica in an adjacent woodland referred to as “Seminar Forest.” At the time, I thought this was the only such replica in the state. Now I’ve learned about and seen firsthand the one at Tyler, which is just a short drive away from my own home.

Tyler Arboretum consists of 650 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, stream valleys, and meadows. The site began as a Quaker farmstead in the 1680s, when Thomas Minshall bought this land directly from William Penn. Generations of Minshalls, Painters, and Tylers lived here and planted representative trees, bushes, and flowers. In 1944, descendent Laura Tyler bequeathed the property to a board of trustees. It has operated as a non-profit public garden ever since.

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Front of the Walden replica

In 2008, the arboretum launched a project called “Totally Terrific Treehouses.” Seventeen new, fun, and kid-friendly buildings were installed around the property. Some of them are still standing and are still in use. The Thoreau house is one of them.

At the time, arboretum executive director Rick Colbert explained to a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer that the exhibition was “about connecting people to trees and our natural world. And what better way to do that than to have visitors experience a cabin like the one where Thoreau chronicled his life in the woods?”

The Walden replica was created by Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester.

Company president Brendan Dolan said, “While not a traditional tree house, it captures the essence of what many of us long for in a tree house — a counterculture sanctuary that provides an intense experience in nature.”

His brother, Mike Dolan, who is also Pine Street’s marketing director, had been turned on to the Transcendentalists in high school and had majored in English at Villanova. He described the building as “a metaphorical tree house, a symbol of Thoreau’s effort to help us appreciate not only the beauty of trees but the splendor of nature in general.”

The workers followed Roland Robbins’ plans, based on his excavations at Walden Pond. They used cedar shingles for the exterior, horsehair plaster for the inside walls, and one thousand bricks for the fireplace and chimney. Two bark-covered logs for the rafters came from Maine. The two windows are reclaimed period antiques, with 16 panes over 16 panes. Unlike other replicas, this one includes a sleeping loft above the fireplace. It took six craftsmen about five weeks to build this Thoreau house. The final cost was about $30,000, with a dozen companies donating time, materials or money. Watch the video of the construction here .

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The loft looks comfortable enough to sleep in.

Inside, the walls are decorated simply enough, with a picture of Thoreau, a brief biography, a description of his original Walden house, and seven framed quotes. Two benches and a bookcase are the only furniture present. Many children’s books are scattered around for visitors of all ages to read and enjoy. I recognized D. B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, as well as Henry David’s House by Steven Schnur and Walking with Henry by Thomas Locker. Other picture book favorites like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also here. What a great use of this space!

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Inside the cabin

Kelly Nicholson, who works in the education office at Tyler Arboretum, showed me around the property. We walked and talked for more than an hour, admiring many of the unique trees here, including the tallest sequoia east of the Mississippi River. She pointed out the garden area near the Thoreau house and explained that this part would soon be reconstructed and reconfigured. A new edible garden will be planted, using an integrated system of both vegetables and perennials. It will serve as a model for what gardeners can do at home. A new classroom and community space will be created here, too. Kelly showed me the beds of the previous garden that will be replaced over the coming months.

“I think that last year, the groundhog benefited the most from our garden,” she said.

Sounds Thoreau-ly familiar. But she warns that if people come to see the Thoreau house before fall, they may find that at least one of the pathways could be blocked by construction. If you’ll be traveling from some distance, you may want to call first to check on the status of the project.

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

But the Walden house is just one singular feature among the beautiful blossoms, fragrant flowers, and tall, majestic trees that you can walk among at Tyler Arboretum. It’s a restful place that is perfect for walks and thoughtful contemplation. An appropriate setting indeed for one of Henry’s houses.

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

Visit here for more information about Tyler Arboretum.

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

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.

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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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Filed under Environment, General, Nature, The Roost

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