Category Archives: General

Winter Reading

Even when I take some days away from reading Thoreau’s journals, as I have recently, he finds his way into my day.

For some reason February always contains time unaimed, and in it, I lose the linear resolve of reading. In books, line follows line, but in my mind ellipses take words’ places, and whole paragraphs go by in some sort of wooly time. I try again.

Just so yesterday, and I put aside the novel whose words are still novel to me and began to root in a bookcase. I needed something to read that I could read. For 7th time I pulled out Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, a book bought long enough ago to have endured some fading of its cover. Gardening, I thought; why not? Perhaps promise of green would distract me from the austere white that had fallen overnight and seemed to blanket my mind.


Pollan’s book began quietly, but early on there was small, contentious mention of Thoreau. He would, said Pollan wrangle some with America’s prophet of the wild; he would, it seemed, stake out some middle ground where a garden grows, and already the lines of argument seemed clear. Also, I was hooked. Out of my wooliness and into Pollan’s world.

It helped that his sentences were clear and clean, and it helped too that he began with little stories of his childhood and its first exposures to gardens and growings via familial tension between an imperious gardening grandfather and Pollan’s indoor-oriented, weed-tolerant father.

And then Pollan’s contentions with Thoreau offered me a few of my own with Pollan – more reason to read on; the book was now burred to me.

Perhaps you too talk back to books you like. Here’s one little conversation from yesterday:

Pollan: Thoreau is gardening here, of course, and this forces him at least for a time to throw out his romanticism about nature — to drop what naturalists today hail as his precocious “biocentrism” (as opposed to anthropocentrism. But by the end of the chapter, his bean field having achieved its purpose, Thoreau trudges back — lamely, it seems to me — to the Emersonian fold: ‘The sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction…Do not these beans grow for woodchucks too?…How then can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?’

Surely, Henry, rejoice. And starve.

me: Ah, Michael…At the outset, Henry describes his time and work at Walden as an “experiment”; no less the bean field. And the purpose of that experiment is expansive, is to press understanding outside the narrow rows of his time’s dominant industry, agriculture. Henry’s bean field chapter is, in part, celebration that he will not have to tie himself to a life of beans and starve his mind, that sun can shine on him “without distinction” as well.

I have, of course, done to Pollan what he has done to Thoreau, plunked him down without full context to contend a point. But isn’t that the real fun of finding yourself drawn into a book’s lines, where you find yourself mumbling occasional objection and reaching for a pencil to scribble both retort and praise?

And, most important, I will read on.

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

Up Side Down

Later today the rains will sluice away what’s left of our snow, and we will be back in our “open-winter.” Perhaps there’s a little symmetry at work after our burrowing February last year, but mostly I feel I’m riding a yo-yo, with its dual motions of rise and fall mixed with constant spin. Yes I know that I live in Wait-a-Minute New England, where volatility is the old normal, and yes, I know that El Nino is nosing about in the Pacific and sending, perhaps, his tears our way. Still…the everyday that touches my skin whispers that this air’s unusual. Even when the wind blusters and tries to threaten real winter, the show’s over in a day.

But my readings of Henry Thoreau’s journals remind me that his era also entertained thaws and mildness that sometimes stretched for days. His immediate weather, to which he paid close and famous attention, whispered little oddnesses too.

What Henry Thoreau didn’t have, however, was an eye in the sky; or, more accurately, a peacock fan’s worth of eyes up there. Henry Thoreau surely transcended earth in spirit and imagination, but the day-by-day parsing of change on the planet was seeable only in a local version. Our satellites, flung up at times willy nilly, have changed that – we now see not only the planet’s roundness, but also the ebbs and flows of its processes. There’s now a lot of data on looking down just a few clicks away.

The other day, I was looking back over (down on) this January past, when I came upon a thermal map of our hemisphere for those days. I looked first at where I live…of course…and noted the warmer than normal temps and nodded. But the color scheme of the whole map wouldn’t let me click on to whatever was next. Surely, I thought, the map’s inverted, upside is down, and I looked more closely: the whole arctic and subarctic region was some version of red-verging-to-darkness, meaning warmer (much) than normal; and the whole temperate portion of the US was (Maine excepted) a cool winter blue.

A screen shot of what I saw. Link at base of this piece.

A screen shot of what I saw. Link at base of this piece.

I expanded the screen so the temperature scale was readable. “Look,” the sky-eye records said clearly, “Look at that.”

All of this is old news, I know. But the news sinks in variously for each of us; for me, this map remains vivid and alive in my mind, even as each day’s air and rain and snow touch my skin.

Link to vivid maps:

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

Once More to the Book

My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark… Thoreau, Walden

On the Saturday past, we arrived at Henry Thoreau’s birthplace just as Corinne Smith began her author talk about her new book, Henry David Thoreau for Kids. We squeezed into the only remaining seats in the house’s family room and listened as Smith outlined the process through which her book came together. As I’ve often found, when listening to authors describe their work, that process, which, for Smith, had yielded orderly, attractive result, can be nonlinear, with inspiration and answer to question arriving from many directions and sources. Smith, like many Thoreauvians, has a broad network of Thoreau contacts, and many of them had helped her find answers and activities for her book. A number were in the room.

Corinne Hosfeld Smith's photo.

Corinne Smith at Thoreau Farm for her book’s launch


So too was Henry. Not the Henry who was born in the room upstairs, but a modern Henry, who was one of Smith’s first readers. I’d read first about this young, modern Henry in one of Smith’s blog-posts last year, and now, as one of this book’s intended readers, here he was. That was fun.

So too were Smith’s descriptions of finding some of the activities that suit the book to kids of all ages (many older kids peopled the room too). I particularly liked the outline-the-house activity that helps someone gain a sense of the scale of Thoreau’s famous house at the pond. There, outside the birthplace, was the green outline Smith had made, and even though the reading room was crowded, I knew that we could all fit within the outline.

Memory sent me back to a November morning a few years ago when I had taken 33 students to see sunrise at the pond. First, we had walked out to the house-site, with its outline-posts of granite and the chains that link them. There, we’d all stepped inside the chains, and I’d read from the Walden passage in Economy where Thoreau begins the house’s construction. Some students had said in surprise, “Hey, we all fit in here easily.” And it was true; there was even room for more, if some early visitors had wandered by. That, I thought, is the value of experience, which often brings words to life, and, in doing so, allows us to fit ourselves into that life.

Just so with Corinne Smith’s book: Henry David Thoreau for Kids surely brings its clear, resonant words and ample illustrations to life in its joined activities for kids (of all ages). And surely some of its sentences began their lives written on bark. Your copy awaits you.

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