Category Archives: Literature

World Anew

When you invert your head, it looks like the finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. Thoreau, The PondsWalden

There are few passages in Walden that better seize students’ imaginations than Henry Thoreau’s implicit command, “when you invert your head!” There it is, nested in its brevity among Thoreau’s long sentences, like a literary speed bump. “Wha…who put that there?” you say after settling back into your reader’s seat and checking the rearview mirror. For a moment, you may have been airborne; surely, you are awakened.

And, perhaps – he hopes – you are inclined to consider Thoreau’s advice. How do I invert my heard, you wonder?

Time for a field trip. In class, we’d close our books, and I would give students 3 minutes of “travel time”; we would meet at the Sudbury River, along the school’s border. By this point just beyond midpoint in Walden, we’d taken enough “excursions” to render students either compliant or wryly amused. We gathered on the thin, mudded shore, and the Sudbury, so slow that in flood it sometimes reverses direction, eased by, its flat waters reflective of the day’s white sky (if you were looking).

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s vital tutorial. It will change your life. Which is another way of saying it will change your perspective.” A few eyes roll; others look down. “He’s off,” whispers one boy, and a ripple of agreement shivers the group’s fringe.

I divide them into two groups, so that no one has to go silly alone. “Okay, line up along the shore with your backs to the river,” I say. “Then, spread your feet beyond shoulder-width. Now, bend forward and lower your head to where its top touches the ground in front of you and, supporting yourself with your hands, look steadily at the river’s surface through your legs.

“Is this for real?” asks one girl, inadvertently using one of Thoreau’s favorite words. “Yes,” I say. “It’s to help you realize perspective.”

Andrew inverting his head on November morning at Walden

Andrew inverting his head on November morning at Walden

A long minute passes. A few grunt with effort at this awkward stance. Still, all eight of them stay with it.

“O,” says the girl on the end. “The world just flipped. It’s upside down. Or maybe right side up.” “Yo,” say another. “Me too.” General agreement breaks out, and the second group begins looking for a place to begin.

Later, we talk this moment over, and they have much to say. It’s not lost on them that Thoreau’s invitation to inversion takes place just beneath the famous “earth’s eye” paragraph. Which requires only the shortest leap to the open-eyed habit of wonder that Thoreau hoped his readers would awaken to in their daily lives.

November’s end and December’s advent seems just the time for inverting one’s head, for bringing sky to ground.

Inverted November sunrise at Walden, along the shore near the housesite

Inverted November sunrise at Walden, along the shore near the housesite

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

A November Moment: Reading Steepletop, an Essay by Mary Oliver

First snow, early darkness – it’s book-reading season, and my purpose here is to lure you into reading the essay in this post’s title. Whatever I can offer for summary and comment pales beside the essay itself, and perhaps I should stop here, say simply, “Go, read this for yourself.” But command is no lure at all; it summons, if anything, our reflexive no-selves, well muscled from age two on. “Eat your vegetables; take a lap; brush your teeth; time’s up…” “No,” we say well before thought gathers. No? Okay, no command then.

So, here’s a bit of what I think Mary Oliver is up to in her luminous essay Steepletop, published in her first book of prose, Blue Pastures, in 1995. And why still, this whole sentence later, I think you should read it.


As a newly-minted high school graduate who is looking for a way out of Ohio, Oliver goes to visit Steepletop, from 1925 – 50 the New York state home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain. Millay has died (as has Boissevain), and her sister Norma has taken up residence as holder of the family name and legacy of this poet who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer, an honor she got at age 31. There, through a series of visits that become finally residence, Oliver finds her first home away from home, and she finds a sort of older sibling figure in the poet’s sister and literary executor, Norma Millay. A young, aspiring poet, Oliver is taken in, but not, we learn in the essay, deceived by the stories she hears of Edna Millay’s tempestuous and brilliant life.

We as readers know also that Oliver herself has gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; she has become one of this country’s most loved poets. But in the recollections of the essay, all of that lies in the future as Oliver casts back to her memories of a time of genesis in her life.

And that sense of Oliver-in-making is what draws me into the essay, even as that is not its overt subject. It is written by a mature Oliver, one who has recently turned (submitted?) to the requests of prose, even as her poems are her central expression. That the writing is luminous in its particulars may go without saying, but I say it anyway: the writing shines in sentence and phrasing.

Steepletop makes central the story of Edna Millay’s grand passion for and with George Dillon. Millay’s long-running and then abruptly-ended affair with Dillon emerges to the young Oliver in family fits and starts, as told by Norma Millay. Oliver listens, then listens some more; her habit of attention, the wellspring of her poetry, is clear.

Here’s a small, but indicative moment: partway through her essay, Oliver offers a footnote. It concerns the 1931 publication of Millay’s Fatal Interview and Dillon’s The Flowering Stone, both of which draw from the long tempest of their affair. Oliver says she “knows this to be true.” And then she demurs, invokes a “mist that surrounds it forever,” that always obscures some essential truth or truths, some unknowable part of a life or lives.

To invoke obscuring mist so clearly, to make the reader know that all can’t be known, even as this story carries one on and much is known, that there is mystery at the heart of all heartsongs seems to me a good description of Mary Oliver’s gifts as a writer. In the clearest language she brings us into misty mystery, where we feel at least as much as we see.

There is, of course, much more in this essay, and in its volume, Blue Pastures. Earlier, I shed command. Now, I offer instead invitation: come read this essay…this book. It is a fine early winter afternoon’s companion; pair it with a cup of tea and take it to your favorite chair, where lamplight pools in the late afternoon dark.

First snow calls on book-reading season

First snow calls on book-reading season

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Duck Talk

For hours, on fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman…but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do. Thoreau, Walden

Even before I crest the small rise I can hear them: the ducks are talking. Their conversation sounds easy, easeful, the sort your hear at the outset of a party before everyone’s in full voice and all subtlety drops away. Recently, they have clustered on this little pond on the way to the Commons in a density brought on, perhaps, by hunting season – how do they know this residential water is off limits? – and perhaps by recent nights’ icings. It has dropped to 19 degrees, and the skim is still firm in the shade this afternoon. And there’s a hint of snow in the little dells beside the trail. I think they should get a migratory move on, but they seem unhurried.

As my head appears, the low muttering morphs to notice, each duck-voice distinct. “Do you see that?” they quack. “Over there, That, That, That…Quack, Quack, Quack.” I half-expect them to point with their bills. And those near the pond’s edge paddle from it toward their brethren in the middle or along a farther fringe. A few beat their wings, as if to show that they can fly…and will…but then they drop to paddling too. Perhaps they know I have no gun; perhaps they know that this neighborhood is sanctuary; perhaps, as I bend away along the trail, I have stepped beyond their necessary duck-space.

As close as they let me get

At some distance, as close as they let me get

The ducks go back to mutter; they discuss my arrival and veering away, and the sound crosses the water, skips off the new ice. I thumb through the worn pages of my memory for the word that describes a gathering of ducks on water. Flock? No, that’s in flight. Is it covey? No, that’s quails, I think. Ah, I’ve heard ducks on water called a raft; yes, I think so. The other word available turns out to be a “paddling.” Descriptive yes, but does “raft” or “paddling” convey what I hear, which could be the sound of so many Hucks and Jims talking as they float? Not really.

What then to call this talky raft?

Here are two possibilities: colloquacky; or maybe quackoquy. Or perhaps you will summon and share a better word.

All part of the fun of walking without aim – you can make the world up as you go.

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