Category Archives: General

Trees for the Forest

I’ve spent much of my summer nearly past amid the trees; I became more mindful of this during a recent paddle on wide open waters near Maine’s Isle au Haut (pronounced locally, Isle a Ho). Most of the islands in this area are dense with forest, mostly spruce, birch and few white pines, and, when I pulled in for a rest stop on Wreck Island, I stepped from under a wide ocean sky into a close, lichen-papered room of dark woods. Pale green bearded-moss filtering the light hung from the trees; my eyes had to jump open a number of f-stops to see. A thin trail wound off to the right, and, for a minute, I watched it expectantly. Wreck Island is, however, now inhabited only by deer and assorted smaller animals, and so I was really peering down a trail and waiting for the past to arrive.

Spruce-capped Islands

Spruce-capped Islands

That past, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, saw very different islands, first claimed and then inhabited by a mix of farmers and fishermen and soon shorn of their trees, which went for fields, buildings, boats, heat and, as the 1800s wore on, pulp. Photos from the 1880s are recognizable only in the shapes of the islands. Such shearing of woodlands was, of course, familiar to Henry Thoreau in Concord also – that long-farmed landscape was cut close, which undoubtedly helped Thoreau treasure those patches of swamp and woodland left untouched. But to find deep woods, Thoreau had to travel to interior Maine.

As I paddled amid the islands, I thought about the microcosm of regeneration each represents. All but a few have full heads of forest-hair, and the interiors of those forested islands have reverted to the timeless suggestion and mystery of woodlands. On one tiny island (Potato), the heart-shaped hoof prints of deer pointed to who lived there now. The regreening of New England has been much noted (over 80% of our region is now forested), and, as the trees and forest thicken annually, woody anomalies keep reappearing too – a mountain lion in Connecticut (DNA sampling said he’d migrated from the Dakotas), a moose on Rte 128, bears in backyard trees. Now, ironically, the most shorn of landscapes can be found in the vast clear cuts of Maine’s interior, where only narrow “beauty strips” of trees separate those who paddle the rivers from the dazed, cut-over square miles of former woods.

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

Thoreau liked to count the rings of trees and learn the outlines of their stories during the good years and the hard. Counting the trees of this summer outlines a story of regeneration that Henry Thoreau would have nodded at and liked.

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

Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, The Roost

September Days

I know the feeling.

The days of this September week have acted on me as they may have acted on Henry in 1855. His journal covers the month’s first 12 days in under a page, ending with two haiku-like entries (I have reshaped them to suggest the form, and yes, the syllable-count stricture is relaxed):

Sept. 11 loudly the
cricket mole creaks by mid-afternoon
muskrat houses begun

Sept. 12 a few
clams freshly eaten some
grapes ripe.

Perhaps the slanting light and the etched clarity of each branch and leaf kept Henry from more usual, detailed writing; perhaps he felt summoned outside, even as the year began to contract. Surely, it’s felt that way for me. Summer’s expansive and eternal mornings have been replaced by sharp, cool air and the sense that something stirs to my north. Every minute outside seems precious and won; the clear air has said, Look and see.

And I have been rewarded:

Bluest sky tall spruce
a single perch for survey
two bald eagles vie

Pebbles crunch underfoot
laughter peals from the white birch
pileated woodpecker

Sea to horizon
ripples shot with sun flight
all day to paddle

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