Category Archives: General

Duck Talk

For hours, on fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman…but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do. Thoreau, Walden

Even before I crest the small rise I can hear them: the ducks are talking. Their conversation sounds easy, easeful, the sort your hear at the outset of a party before everyone’s in full voice and all subtlety drops away. Recently, they have clustered on this little pond on the way to the Commons in a density brought on, perhaps, by hunting season – how do they know this residential water is off limits? – and perhaps by recent nights’ icings. It has dropped to 19 degrees, and the skim is still firm in the shade this afternoon. And there’s a hint of snow in the little dells beside the trail. I think they should get a migratory move on, but they seem unhurried.

As my head appears, the low muttering morphs to notice, each duck-voice distinct. “Do you see that?” they quack. “Over there, That, That, That…Quack, Quack, Quack.” I half-expect them to point with their bills. And those near the pond’s edge paddle from it toward their brethren in the middle or along a farther fringe. A few beat their wings, as if to show that they can fly…and will…but then they drop to paddling too. Perhaps they know I have no gun; perhaps they know that this neighborhood is sanctuary; perhaps, as I bend away along the trail, I have stepped beyond their necessary duck-space.

As close as they let me get

At some distance, as close as they let me get

The ducks go back to mutter; they discuss my arrival and veering away, and the sound crosses the water, skips off the new ice. I thumb through the worn pages of my memory for the word that describes a gathering of ducks on water. Flock? No, that’s in flight. Is it covey? No, that’s quails, I think. Ah, I’ve heard ducks on water called a raft; yes, I think so. The other word available turns out to be a “paddling.” Descriptive yes, but does “raft” or “paddling” convey what I hear, which could be the sound of so many Hucks and Jims talking as they float? Not really.

What then to call this talky raft?

Here are two possibilities: colloquacky; or maybe quackoquy. Or perhaps you will summon and share a better word.

All part of the fun of walking without aim – you can make the world up as you go.

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

Nosing Out

This is a very beautiful November day, — a cool but clear, crystalline air, through which even the white pines with their silvery sheen are an affecting sight. It is a day to behold and ramble over the hard (stiffening) and withered surface of the tawny earth. Thoreau, Journal 11/22/60

I awoke today to the first froth of snow rimming the yard. It was gone in the time it took to drink my coffee. But it serves as announcement. Still, the season shifts a little more slowly on the nearby ocean, and not long ago I was on it in search of slowed motion. Being near the ocean as the year ebbs (or floods) gives you access to two seasons, the foot-stepping one of the land and the slow follower of the water.

For the most part, the water-season’s over. Boats are shrink-wrapped and tucked away in storage; only the wind-flung leaves animate the waves as they reach for the shore; and all the osprey and eagle nests that sowed the air with birds are empty. Still, on a day when the winds stay away, and after the slanting sun warms the air a little, I sometimes rack my boat on the car’s roof and go to the sea.

To be clear, as the waters cool, I am wary. The ocean buoys are flirting with 50, and even in the calm bays the temps aren’t much higher. A bath in that sort of water can quickly become a one-way plunge. But I have a drysuit, which makes me feel a little like an astronaut – sans the helmet and Houston – and I’m not about to embark on a “test-piece” of paddling toward some extreme, so some float-time seems okay.

On this day, even in the afternoon, the sea-world seems to have exhaled and dropped into a nap. What ripples there are on the waters emphasize their calm and the tranquil sky above. Paddling on such a surface has the feel of sliding across polished glass, and I begin my circuit of little islands by making the day’s long letter – the V of passage.

The V that makes the V of passage

The V that makes the V of passage

As the point of this V I aim at little Scrag Island, and its northern headland, a cliff that looks like a big ship’s prow. There, I drift for bit, watching the silent rock, admiring how the fifty-foot pines somehow find holds that keep them upright and growing an annual foot or so. The absence of any “quick-life,” – birds, boats, us – keeps me at this scene where pine clasps rock; I feel no hurry. When I do paddle on, the shore sliding by on my left, it is simply for the pleasure of this easy sliding.

Island pines holding on, rising

Island pines holding on, rising

There is, I think, no large message from this day, other than its glimpse into the longer spans of time where tree and rock simply persist. But there is the expanse of water and sky, the stretch of vision that seems, as I float, back on time’s tide.

Though you are finger-cold toward night, and you cast a stone on your first ice, and see the unmelted crystals under every bank, it is glorious November weather, and only the November fruits are out. Thoreau, Journal, 11/22/60

Today is one of those fruits.

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Looking Up

Each day, it seems, brings the dissonant grinding of large gears – much of what rolls usually forward, socially, environmentally, personally seems instead stuck or damaging. And the noise can be deafening, disheartening. I’ve said often that, at such times, I turn to Henry Thoreau’s emphasis on the local and the little for the sometimes-thin music of necessary hope. Today and its troubles ask for this music.

And that has me paging back a few days to a conference I attended in early November. Perhaps it was the narrowed focus of The Alpine Stewardship Conference, sponsored by The Waterman Fund and hosted by Maine’s Baxter State Park, but there, in the company of 100 alpine-enthused others, I heard and felt hope, even as I also learned more about the fraught future of the northeast’s rare alpine zones. I’ve spent a lifetime in the northeast’s mountains, and so neither the zones nor their stresses were new to me. What was new were some of the visions and stories I heard. That the conference and its stories took place within easy eyeshot of Katahdin, or, to reverse the image, under Katahdin’s gaze, gave them added resonance for someone whose idea of a travelogue is Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.

Katahdin, or, as Thoreau had it, Ktaadn

Katahdin, or, as Thoreau had it, Ktaadn

That those woods and their preeminent peak are recognizable to Thoreau’s readers these 170 or so years after his first foray to Maine is my first good story. Yes, the woods have been cut more than once, and land ownership and corporate wobbles (leave aside, for now, climate change) threaten this huge area, but it retains a core that keeps it stable and offers hope. That core is Baxter State Park, a 200,000+ acre gift from former Maine governor Percival Baxter, offered over more than 30, mid-20th-century years and guided by a trust’s charter that, to me, is enlightened and inspired: “The park is to be preserved in its wild state as unspoiled wilderness…” That Park management is carried out by leadership that seems equally inspired is simply good news for anyone who likes a foot-won wild.

Baxter’s long story requires (and has gotten) more than one book’s length. Here’s a facet that lifts me: the huge, mountainous park is there for public recreation – Baxter wanted the people of Maine (and elsewhere) to be able to enjoy these lands. But another value informs our use (and our access), and that is the value of wilderness. The public is invited, but our use must not compromise the wildness of the park. It is “to be preserved in its wild state.” And so, we are limited – in our numbers, in our uses, in short, in our tendencies to overdo. Sure that creates a need for reservations and some gnashing of tourist teeth, (not to mention a thorough gumming by some libertarians), but it also creates a wilderness experience unmatched in our region.

Two word-ways there

Two word-ways there

Already, I stray to the limits of posting, and so I’ll close here, with a promise to return to some of these alpine uplands – the northeast holds a counted eleven – and some of their little stories – animals, plants…ants! – in later posts. Meanwhile here’s to the trust of Percival Baxter, to his current trustees and their staff and friends. And to looking up…and little hopes.

Here are three links for a deeper (or loftier) look:

Baxter State Park:

Friends of Baxter State Park:

The Waterman Fund:

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