Category Archives: Literature

Sweltering Saunter

By Corinne H. Smith

“Went to what we called Two-Boulder Hill, behind the house where I was born. There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold.” ~ Journal, January 31, 1860

It was the morning of July 12th. Sunshine was already blazing down on Thoreau Farm. And it was time for one of my regular nature walks to Two Boulder Hill. On this day, a new friend named Robert joined me. In the spirit of Thoreau, we sauntered. We made a point to pay close attention to sounds, to sights, and to anything that came our way. We scribbled notes in our journals, too. But it was hot. We sure could have used Thoreau’s cold wind.

Especially noticeable today was the Queen Anne’s lace that stood tall along the edges of our route. Many blooms had opened from the initial stage that some naturalists call “bird’s nests.” Henry Thoreau thought their intricate weaving of greenery resembled “a fanciful ladies’ work-basket.” (July 3, 1852) We stopped and watched as one of the flowers was being worked over by a variety of insects. One bug was bigger than the rest and had a bright gold body underneath his black wings. Neither one of us had ever seen his kind before. Already, we were finding new and incredible things.

Queen Anne's Lace, without the insects

Queen Anne’s Lace, without the insects

The flowers of mid-summer greeted as old friends here. The little yellow flowers in low leafy bunches were bird’s foot trefoil, now seen along highways almost as often as crown vetch. Tiny deptford pinks added more color to the scene. And the sweet fern, wow! I’d never seen so many plants of it here. This was a nice surprise.

Robert pointed out faint tracks of white-tailed deer stamped into the mud. Bigger prints with claws meant someone with a sizable dog had walked through here recently. These tracks were too big to have been made by coyotes, although this area has been known to harbor them from time to time.

And then we noticed The Hand of Man. We spied something shiny lying among the bushes. Robert stepped in to grab it, and it turned out to be a deflated aluminum balloon. Hundreds of ants ran all over it. He dropped it onto the path, so that we could pick it up on our way back and hopefully, without ants. Some of my environmental and anti-balloon friends would have felt both appalled and justified in being so. Obviously blown balloons can indeed end up anywhere.

When we walked uphill and came within sight of the two granite boulders, we immediately heard the song of the wood thrush. Thoreau’s favorite bird! This was a good sign. We sat down and pulled out our journals and listened for more inspiration.

Robert soon found a tick crawling on his leg. He dispatched it quickly. I was visited by a teeny-tiny white spider. I had just picked it up and relocated it to a nearby leaf when a sudden clamor erupted behind us. A crow alarm of various voices burst into full force.

We both jumped up and turned around. I caught a quick glimpse of something brown in the top of a tall tree. Crows cawed and buzzed by the branches. A hawk. It had to be. But we couldn’t see it. Robert ran back up the path to get a better look. More crow reinforcements arrived, protesting even as they flew in. It was an amazing scene to witness. The alarm could have lasted for only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the calls trailed off and stopped. The hawk must have flown away from the back of the tree. Robert returned, both of us slightly disappointed. Neither one of us had gotten a good look at it. And by now, even the crows were gone.

As we made our way back to Thoreau Farm, we started to notice some of the rocks along the path. I picked up a nice example of conglomerate as a memento. If you look closely, you can see sparkles in it. Now I keep it in my pocket as a reminder of the place and the day. I smile when my fingers happen to brush against it.

rock

The balloon was still covered with ants, so we left it in the path. We could only hope that another walker would carry it out and dispose of it someday. We should have brought a garbage bag with us.

When we reached Thoreau Farm, we saw that people had gathered in the shade to celebrate Henry Thoreau’s birthday. We sang and ate cake – quickly, as the icing melted in the sun. All in all, it was not a bad way to mark Henry’s 198th.

On December 5, 1856, Henry Thoreau wrote in his journal: “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.” But Henry! Why did it have to fall on such a hot day?

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Cloud Story

Low-anchored cloud,
Newfoundland air,
Fountain-head and source of rivers,
Dew-cloth, dream-drapery,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the daisied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers,
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields!
- Henry David Thoreau

Cloud Story

Summer often summons the inner-child, at least this one, and just the other day that child-me returned to reading the sky, shaping characters who strove across the horizon. It was a middling sort of day – warm but not hot, a few clouds by noon, a little sun, a breeze that couldn’t decide on direction – and I was idling by the sea. The small harbor across which I looked is backed by low ridges of traditional Maine pines, and the water’s ripples were particolored pastels. I set aside the book I’d brought down and looked out and up; the horizon’s few clouds were singular, each keeping pace with the slowest of metronomes; some cirrus etched the blue above.

The story begins

The story begins

Some time later, in a fashion similar to an old Western, cloud-figures (riders?) appeared atop the ridges. My mind supplied the insistent thrum of drums. Shifting then to Butch Cassidy, I said (perhaps aloud), “Who are those guys?”

"Those guys"

“Those guys”

Those guys continued their slow rise, looking down from their ridge – at me? I seemed the only one paying attention, which is another of the conceits when it comes to cloud-stories, and as they advanced I began to feel exposed. Their bellies darkened; they even “loomed,” a verb I usually cut from my vocabulary as overused.

Then, I began to wonder aloud. “What’s your story?” I asked, and then looked around to see if anyone else was near to hear. No one. That’s good, I said to myself, I can get on with my story, which had become one of four genies who spot a lone lounger on a seaside ledge…and then grant him…four wishes.

Let’s see, I mused, what, beyond the entertainment of Trump’s “candidacy,” would I wish for? And I drifted off into summer reverie.

Near rumbling broke the spell. The genies had vanished; actually they had coalesced into a into a …vast face that really did loom. As I watched, a forked finger of lightning tickled the ridge across the water. “Whoa,” I said aloud, said to self. Veils of rain hung from the cloud; day-ending darkness lidded over. Still, it was still. We all hesitated.

Genies gathered

Genies gathered

Then came the wind, bearing the story’s final sentence: Time to beat feet; time to get indoors. The cloud rumbled, yes, run, small fry.

Here, then, are the rest of those clouds. You’re invited to create your own narrative…or poem to match Thoreau’s.

A genie leans in for a look

A genie leans in for a look

 

Light show

Light show

Varied light and color

Varied light and color

 

The wind arrives

The wind arrives

Storm's edge

Storm’s edge

 

A "sucker-hole," the piece of sky that lures you out, just when you should turn in

A “sucker-hole,” the piece of sky that lures you out, just when you should turn in

 

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Falling in with Henry – Summer Outside of Town

It was unplanned, but over these July days, some 170 years after his move to Walden, I’ve fallen in with Henry and his stretched summer of ’45. Later, it would become part of Walden’s endless (nearly) summer, lasting for more than half the book before fall’s abrupt, punctuating chill arrived. But now, in his raw journal pages and in the mild light that forgets to dwindle each evening, I keep hearing susurration, summer’s saying, “ssssshhhure it’s okay to idle, maybe turn the page…maybe not.”

Well-thumbed Princeton Edition of the Journal

Well-thumbed Princeton Edition of the Journal

On or about July 16th that year, Alek Therien, who would become the woodchopper (and conundrum – is he as simple as one of his posts, or as wise as Homer?) in Walden, visits Thoreau, and, even in these unguarded pages, he’s unsure of what to make of his blunt guest. Therien offers advice on hoeing beans – wait ’til the dew dries – which Thoreau doesn’t credit, and he wants to be read to, which invites a visit from Homer himself.

“And now,” Thoreau writes, “I must read to him while he holds the book – Achilles’ reproof to Patrocles on his sad countenance
‘Why are you in tears, – Patrocles? Like a young child (girl) &c. &c

Or have you only heard some news from Phthia?”

And on this question I pause. Phthia is Achilles’ and Patrocles’ home town, and they are far away at Troy. What might be happening when they are so far from home? Might their fathers be ill, or have died? Might invaders have appeared, just as they the Greeks have at Troy?

It seems significant that Achilles appears here near the inception of Thoreau’s Walden years. He will become a recurring reference in Thoreau’s book, a heroic ideal that casts light on Thoreau’s own purpose at Walden, where, following the archetype, he has set out to locate some secret, some sense of how to live, which he will bring back with him when he returns to town.

Okay, you may say, I know that.

But what has me falling in with Henry Thoreau these days is the implied wondering about the world he has left, the everyday Concord and its dusty roads and clanking cutlery. For me, summer creates the same sense of remove as the shift to Walden. Even when I don’t leave town, I leave its routine, its minute-by-minute machinations.

Instead I live in stretched time’s aforementioned Ss and the way a day’s light goes buttery in the near evening when corn and tomatoes and greens that absorbed that light even this morning form the table’s fare.

And sometimes the question rises: what is happening back in the little town of the everyday? Will I return? Who will be waiting?

For now, however, I am happy to be here, only perhaps an imagined mile or so out of that town, it’s true, but emphatically elsewhere. As was Henry Thoreau when he wrote from beyond Concord of a similar present on the 14th of July in 1845:

Here I know I am in good company – here is the world its centre and metropolis, and all the palms of Asia – and the laurels of Greece – and the first of the Arctic Zones incline thither.

Expansive summer.

July's Pages

July’s Pages

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