Category Archives: General

Blue Sign

“We go listening for bluebirds, but only hear crows and chickadees.” Journal, 3/1/55

The light suggests it. It peers in-house before 6:00 a.m., and even amid the ongoing cold, it has crusted the snowbanks that angle toward the south. And also even as more snow filters in, the drifts have begun to shrink. The growing light is sublime. Also literally, as the shrinkage of snow comes of sublimation.

Like Henry Thoreau, I think there must be bluebirds about. And I know where to look. Back in January, when our winter looked to be a humdrum sort of thin cover and open fields, I noticed that an old relic apple tree on one of my walking routes flashed often with chips of blue color. A whole crew of bluebirds – what is the word for a gathering of bluebirds? An azure of birds? A sky of them? – favored this dense, spiky tree. Clearly, they were intent on weathering and wintering here.

Eastern Bluebird

And a quick trip to my bird book showed a sliver of purple riding the nearby coast, sign of possible year-round range, even as the rest of northern New England is usually summer range only.

What about now, I wondered. Were the bluebirds, after this month of snowy onslaught, still here? Or had they, like many of us, been “innived?”

I went to look, and there along the border of snowfield and hard by an old track that promises sometime a walk into the woods, they were. Even more blue against the always white of the day. Leave aside the sobering thought that these bluebirds may winter here now because warming is on the rise. Today they are blue relief against the deep white.

Puffed against the Cold

Puffed against the Cold

I like the little riot of chickadees always at the birdfeeder, and surely the crows are our most talkative neighbor. But the bluebird’s a sign I’m happy to go walking and listening for. Welcome to March.

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

Thoreau & Twain on Learning and Loss

By Corinne H. Smith

Unless you’re shelving classics in alphabetical order by surname, the names of American authors Henry Thoreau and Mark Twain don’t usually surface at the same time. The two men never met, although their lives overlapped by 27 years. Twain began his writing career just as Thoreau was ending his. By then, they were based on opposite sides of the country. Their writing styles and choices of topics differed widely, of course. But both wrote travel narratives. And both were known for their keen powers of observing the activities of nature and man. Overall, Henry focused more on the first; and Mark, more on the second. Both had unique senses of humor, too.

Thoreau and Twain Together

Thoreau and Twain Together

One issue they may have agreed on was the costs they both incurred by choosing a certain way of earning money. They could have debated their results. Is it possible to be TOO familiar with Nature? Do we lose something irreplaceable when we gain too much technical knowledge of the natural world? Consider these two passages.

In his journal entry for January 1, 1858, Thoreau mourns the loss of finding wildness after conducting a lot of surveying:

“I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind’s eye – as, indeed, on paper – as so many men’s wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at any given moment passing from such a one’s wood-lot to another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.”

Compare these thoughts to those in Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in Chapter IX, called “Continued Perplexities.” He describes losing the ability to see beauty after learning to navigate a steamboat across the muddy Mississippi:

“Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!”

Twain recalls – to a time when he was known as Sam Clemens – how he once had been captivated by sunsets or by moonlight reflected in the water. He could relish the sights of ripples, sunken logs, and other imperfections that made the river view more interesting. These were the same idiosyncrasies that could have consequences if you happened to be steering a paddlewheel craft through the water. Now all he could see were potential navigational obstacles.

“But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. … No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”

These are sad words to read. Especially since both men were writing about their home territories and about places they loved. Walden Woods. The Mississippi River. I hope they both overcame these losses, and that these were only temporary setbacks. Or maybe the stresses were more complex. Maybe the men also inwardly bristled at the situations that forced them to be responsible to others for that keen but necessary focus on science and mechanics. Henry reported to the landowners. Young Sam Clemens’s duties were to a steamboat company and to an ever-changing packet of passengers. Neither had much time for sheer appreciation of the landscape.

And yet, I keep Thoreau and Twain in mind as I continue to read and learn more about plants and animals and habitats and such. If I’m in the forest, and I come upon a leaf that I recognize, will I be apt to say, “That’s a white oak,” and never look up at the terrific silhouette of the tree it came from? I wonder: If we learn “enough” about the natural world, do we risk never having another chance to witness its wildness or beauty? Will the facts always get in the way?

I can’t be the only one who worries about this dilemma. Surely scientists and park rangers must wrestle with it, too. Do you?

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

Tiny Promise

More fun with shovel on the roof today, and, yes, the arctic has reannounced itself (13 below this morning). I pitched my pounds of snow out into the air, and they fell with the thud of stone. But up there, on its slight southwestern pitch, I also got a face full of light, and in the little coves of my scarf, I could feel that light’s heat gathering. I leaned on my shovel, closed my eyes, and felt Spring coming on.

It is common announcement, but it feels like miracle as well, this tiny promise. And, as often happens when I’m outside, Henry Thoreau’s nosings about came to mind. In particular, I thought about his musings on the way seeds move with the wind and over the snow during the winter. Below me, the snow was littered with twigs and seeds from a recent gale, other tiny promises that, when linked with sun and water, would become the next season of growth.

More Promise

More Promise

In mid-February of 1856, Thoreau was, as usual, out walking and seeing what he could see:

I was struck today by the size and continuousness of the natural willow hedge on the east side of the railroad causeway, at the foot of the embankment, next to the fence. Some twelve years ago, when that causeway was built through the meadows, there were no willows there or near there, but now just at the foot of the sandbank, where it meets the meadow, and on the line of the fence, quite a dense willow hedge has planted itself. I used to think that the seeds were brought with the sand from the Deep Cut in the woods, but there is no golden willow there; but now I think that the seeds have been blown hither from a distance and lodged against the foot of the bank, just as the snow drift accumulates there…

…Thus they take advantage of even the railroad, which elsewhere disturbs and invades their domains. May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow! How tenacious of life! How withy! How soon it gets over its hurts! Journal 2/14/56

Blown this way and that by a winter of renown, I felt as if I had come to rest at the base of this bank of light; I felt its warmth. It seeds me for spring.

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