Category Archives: Literature

Orchid Eyes

“The lady’s slipper in the pitch pine woodside near J. Hosmer’s Desert, probably about the 27th.” 5/30/56, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner.

I’m on my way home when I see the season’s first orchid. It’s a day or so before it reaches the showy-phase with its white-pink slippers tipped just so, but the two splayed, glossy leaves and the rising neck, with its bud shy seeming, are enough; almost enough to make me camp here and wait for their flower. Almost.

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Instead, I’ll return tomorrow, and, as I go south into the deeper woods and reach the pitch pine plain at their core, I’ll get orchid eyes, the eye-set that lets me see these rare plants everywhere. The forest floor is eruptive green at this time of year, and all those greens are fresh and appealing. And its daubs of white, wildflowers draw the eye too, but I await especially the lady slippers, which people the woods like…people.

Some rise in clusters, and in years past in each of my circuits of Concord’s Estabrook Woods, I knew where to look for these tiny towns or tribes. One in particular grows near the two-mile marker, a waist-high granite post as you walk south along the Old Carlisle Road. From there it’s two miles to our revolution’s “rude bridge that arched the flood,” though during most springs, it has both feet in the flood – no dry-shod revolutionaries these days. Each spring somewhere between ten and twenty slippers rise on the sunny bank to the left of the post.

Then, a while farther along, at the overlook for Stump Pond, if you crane your neck to peer down the slope leading to the water, there are always a few solitary slippers. The same is true along the esker that runs along the pond’s north flank. Here are the Thoreaus of the species, the slippers who like a little distance from their neighbors.

When the flower shows, inclined just as someone might hold a slipper for a lady’s foot, our native orchid is easy to spot, insistent really. Whose foot? As often happens, we look back to the Greeks and into the mists of myth for answer: the genus name Cypripedium fuses Cypris and pedilion; this “sandal” awaits Aphrodite…as do many of us.

But for these few days before the blossom, it takes orchid eyes to find them amid all the other look-at-me greenery. And It is a little like putting on special lenses: once they are in place, orchid plant after orchid plant appears.

Soon it’s clear, these pitch-pine woods could shoe all the Aphrodites and Cinderellas in the world.

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Setting Out

Late in May, 1849, Henry Thoreau published his first book. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, met little public enthusiasm, and because Thoreau had taken on some debt to get his book out, in the end he owed money. The best he seemed able to realize from the venture was his famous “library” joke, wherein he boasted to owning over 1000 books, 700 of which he had written himself. Not a promising start for a most famous writer.

Still, May is a month for fliers – for seeing them, and for taking them – and I’ve returned to the rivers and thickets of A Week as an appreciation for flight, for the setting out that is all enterprise – on water, on air. Pick your liquid. But, once you have, set forth on it.

Thoreau opens A Week with a short chapter of long sentences about the Concord River, and he is intent on epic associations before setting out on his own. He describes his local river as,

…a huge volume of matter, ceaselessly rolling through the plains and valleys…making haste from the high places of earth to its ancient reservoir. The murmurs of many a famous river on the other side of the globe reach even to us here,…many a poet’s stream floating the helms and shields of heroes…The Xanthus or Scamander is not a mere dry channel and bed of a mountain torrent, but fed by the ever-flowing springs of fame;…

Ah, to Troy even. All this before we cast off with Thoreau and his brother John, who set out on Saturday, the next chapter.

At length, on Saturday, the last day of August, 1839, we two, brothers, and natives of Concord, weighed anchor in this river port; for Concord too, lies under the sun, a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men;…

It’s near noon, and now’s the time. I shuck off my work, putting aside my keyboard. And…avert your eyes…I shuck off my clothes too…in favor of others less long-sleeved and leg-sheathed. Then I tie my feet into trail shoes, and I’m off.

The way

The way

When you run, however slowly, the land too is liquid. And, after the obligatory whinging from everything that’s been sitting all morning, I begin to flow along the spring-soft trail, and on into the woods. I am, along this wave-wrinkled land, a foot-pilot, steering first between those two pines, then over the crest of a rise.

What’s on the other side? Let’s go see.

Along a long way

Along a long way

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Finding Joy in a Cut Landscape

I will confess to a little gloominess in recent days – it’s hard to turn a page or click a link and find good news in the next page or screen. And yet, as I work each morning near an open window, or read at night and hear the peepers soliciting each other, my low mood rises.

As part of my work, I’ve been rereading some of Thoreau’s journal from 1854 – a year when he is, perhaps, at the height of his powers. Publication of Walden’s not far away; the long trudge through draft after draft’s nearly done. It is time to look up…and out.

Our world tends more and more toward scolds, even as decades of experience make clear that most of us don’t respond well to even the most well-meaning of them. And, surely, we’ve all read passages where Thoreau points a finger at us and shakes it. But as I’ve read through the spring of ’54, with its burgeoning life, it’s clear Thoreau can scarcely contain himself. Here is odd example: on 4/14/54, he is annoyed at the distraction of a body that has had the temerity to turn up in the Sudbury River near Fair Haven Pond. How dare human death and woe distract from the birthing of the world? That seems a bit callous, but Thoreau isn’t being mean spirited, I think; he is simply intent on his season.

Today’s Fairhaven Bay is immeasurably, or nearly so, wilder and more forested than in Thoreau’s time, but he finds so much joy in even this scalped landscape; he can’t stop noting what’s there, instead of what’s not, even as what’s not there could be a book in itself. But as spring runs its sap through him, he is joyful…and remarkably observant of each plant’s advent. All these little births; all this uplift. It’s enough to make you think that life does go on.

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So it is with the violets, who just now are enjoying their high season in the yard. One section is wearing a coverlet of purple and white; it looks regal. I watch them as I have my morning coffee.

Added note: and today, one of the rhododendrons came out; soon, the lilacs. Purple phase all through my brain – (apologies to J Hendrix).

Shady with white violets

Shady with white violets

 

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