Category Archives: Literature

Elegiac August

For me, and I think for many, late August always has an elegiac feel: days shorten, school nears and, suddenly, a spray of red leaves appears in a favorite maple. It is also a rich time, of course – harvest alone ensures a feeling of plenty – but summer’s waning shadows it. Still, even as time tightens, I’ve found that I sometimes vanish into late August, entering the woods of experience in one place, and later appearing somewhere, or as someone, else. What happens in the interim can feel like local magic. Here, in compressed fashion is such a vanishing.

August’s Losses

And so I wandered a good time
in the pawed blueberry scraggle
of a northern hilltop
in a field nodding too
with rich goldenrod high grass
and I got
my quart or two
by picking out single berries
small blue globes hung
still on raked bushes
by stepping also
into the pressed stalks
where he paused in each patch.
In this way I lumbered
across the hill’s brow
pale back humped to the sun, and
lost track of the hours lost
the wires’ humming voices
lost the delicate hitched chain
of my own thought
lost too my upright divide
from the life
of bears.

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Close Afield

“…the thonder gan romblen in the Heven with that gristly steven, that Chaucer tells of – (the gods must be proud with such forked flashes and such artillery to rout a poor unarmed fisherman…” Thoreau, Journal, August 23rd 1845

Is there a better summer-storm line than Chaucer’s above?  Thonder really does romble. Anyway, I’ve returned to my reading of Henry Thoreau’s first summer at Walden and its resonances with our current summer. Aging August brings me to Thoreau’s thunder-precipitated meeting with John Field, the central episode of what would become the Baker Farm chapter of his book.

The backside of a "romblen" cloud

The backside of a “romblen” cloud

Thoreau observes no niceties when describing Field (“An Honest hard working – but shiftless man plainly was John Field) and his wife (with round greasy face and bare breast – still thinking to improve her condition one day) and “many children from the broad faced boy that ran by his father’s side to escape the rain to the wrinkled & Sybil like – crone-like infant, not knowing whether to take the part of age or infancy…” Even as they give him shelter.

In exchange, however, Thoreau does offer them advice, amplified by the time he writes the episode into the published version of Walden: “I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent to such a ruin as his commonly amounts to…”

Here, after all, is one of the desperate masses for whom Thoreau intends his life and book as example; here is a test case: “If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a huckle-berrying…” But the test does not go well: “John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms akimbo…”

The thundershower ends and Thoreau sets off, retreats, really: “As I was leaving the Irishman’s roof after the rain, bending my steps again to the pond, my haste to catch pickerel, wading in retired meadows, in sloughs and bog-holes, in forlorn and savage places, appeared for an instant trivial to me who had been sent to school and college…”

Here is crisis, I think, of a sort familiar to us all. Just what am I doing with whatever I’ve been given (it is, we recall from Walden’s first chapter, “difficult to begin without borrowing,”) the tools of school in this instance? All this walking and mucking about, he seems to say, to what purpose?

Thoreau’s answer is lyrical and famous. And, for me, only partially convincing. Still, it is hard not to feel the momentum of that answer; it gathers you in: “but as I ran down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder, and some faint tinkling sound borne to my ear through the cleansed air, from I know not what quarter, my Good Genius seemed to say, – Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, – farther and wider, – and rest thee by many brooks and heart-sides without misgiving…Grow wild according to thy nature.”

The biblical allusions and language underscore the sacred nature of this answer conjured by “my Good Genius.” The “faint tinkling sounds” seem transcendent chimes.

Still, I wonder what you make of this meeting in the Baker Farm chapter and how its questions fit in your lives?

Other note, related (perhaps) in the way it appeared to me when I was not “at work”: a hummingbird moth, humming and hovering in the bee balm – it looked like an infant hummingbird, a third the size of the usual, except…that it had antennae over half an inch long. Antennae, I thought and wondered? It gave the “bird” a goofy sort of Saturday Night Live retro look. Still, it hovered over the flowers gracefully, dipped its long “nose” in tastefully. Clearly a “bird” with flair…then, later after a search of images, a bug (which put me in mind of “the strong and beautiful bug” that appears at Walden’s end). “What beautiful and winged life.”

images

Later, two pileated woodpeckers (a pair?) only 10 feet away (briefly, of course, as they flew up and off issuing their wild laughter).

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Small Mountain Wandering – of forests, mohawks and copperheads

“…this time we chose the right hand or highest peak – and soon my companions were lost to my sight behind the ver retreating mountain ridge   over huge rocks loosely poised I climbed a mile or more – still edging toward the clouds…” Thoreau, Journal – Fall 1846

Thoreau’s summer of ‘46 was filled with mountains; his journal is rife with them – New Hampshire’s high peaks and Maine’s wild ones. In late summer, Thoreau was drawn north to the big woods and uplands of Maine. His second summer at Walden had brought both heat and, I’m guessing, a little flattening of both experience and “experiment.” Some nord-walking must have seemed just the restorative ticket.

Traveling counter-direction to Thoreau, but just as interested in restorative walking, I recently drove south from Maine. In Connecticut on a family visit, I rose early on an August day and, after a quick trip to a coffee shop, laced on my shoes. It was one of those morning’s where the cool air promises September, even as the sun announces an August intent. I figured a few hours of trail-time in those early hours would set up the rest of my day.

And so I drove a few miles to a favorite state park and turned into a three-car parking indent striated with tree roots. Sleeping Giant State Park runs about three miles on an west-east axis, and that axis follows the contours of a supposedly recumbent giant, whose various prominences – hip, knee, shoulder – rise some 500 feet above the valley below.

The Giant, tree-softened in sleepy profile when seen from a distance, is hard-boned up close. Along its steepnesses the trails are rock studded with the slough of ridges, and those fractured trap-rock stones are sharp-angled rather than water-smoothed geometries. And along its south-facing aspect, the Giant’s central body is shot also with hundred-foot cliffs; because we are some miles north of the long final moraine that is Long Island, I wonder if those cliffs are where the recent glacier tore chunks of Giant away and carried them south.

Sleeping Giant in profile. photo: Hamden Times

Sleeping Giant in profile.
photo: Hamden Times

The Giant’s other notables are trees – in places oaks, maples, beeches and ashes soar to a canopy so high and complete that there’s almost no understory; in other spots groves of laurels rise like twisting smoke to 20 or 25 feet, where they spread leafily out.

Then there are the sightings: as I ran the broad gravel Tower Road up to the 739-foot high point, two twenty-somethings with buzzed, orange-tinged hair warned me that they’d just seen a copperhead on the path and that thought juiced the day with a little added wonder. Yes, I thought, we are along the northern fringe of copperhead range; yes that’s possible, even though it is improbable (their mohawks undercut somewhat their naturalist creds). “That’s so cool,” I said and kept on uphill, scanning now for coppery movement. I’m not sure what response they were after or expected, but my enthusiasm for the snake didn’t seem a match for it. “Silver hairs running up hills,” their expressions seemed to say. “What to make of them?”

Copperhead on the Sleeping Giant.  photo credit: http://www.geofffox.com/MT/archives/tag/sleeping-giant

Copperhead on the Sleeping Giant. photo credit: http://www.geofffox.com/MT/archives/tag/sleeping-giant

The best Giant loop – run first some years back after a dousing rain that left rivulets on the trails and drops sparkling in the trees – warms up along the lower perimeter of the park and then links two trails that traverse its flanks, running first west to east and then east to west. At its midpoint, this route adds the spike of running up the 600-foot climb to the prominence of the Giant’s left hip (with its rumored copperheads). My trails are, as are all trails on the Giant, color coded, the north flank’s marked by violet triangles, the south’s by yellow, and as I run I often follow the contours with the land sloping up above and away below my intermediate mountainscape.

Being in mid-Giant is the perfect level for focusing on my feet and not on what’s out or up there, the views and speculations that lift the head and bring on stumbles. Here, even – no, especially – amid the jumbled stone, I find rhythm; I step step step along through the big trees and splashed lime-colored light, along through the tumble of the Giant’s reclining body. And as we do wherever we run, I step step step into a country of myth.

Short summary of Giant myth: we come from the sea. And from the south, from New Haven’s harbor, the west-east traprock ridge some 10 miles inland looks like a recumbent being; that view from the coast gave rise to the Giant’s name. But the story returns as many do to those who went over this landscape for thousands of years before us. The New Haven area’s Quinnipiac Indians had a storied geography and a primary relationship with the long fluency of the Connecticut River. It seems also that their land was peopled by walking mountains, in particular one Hobbomock, who was ill-tempered as big beings tend to be. Anyway, Hobbomock conceived of a torment the locals wouldn’t forget; he set out to divert the huge nearby river, thereby disrupting the Quinnipiac’s way of life.

And in answer to their prayers and sacrifices, Hobbomock was finally quieted, given to sleep, where now he offers trails and little glens to those who would see the world at our feet.

Sometimes, the mythic brings us also back to the present.

Yo, look, Henry: it’s a copperhead!

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